Vijay Chokal-Ingam made headlines earlier in 2015 for claiming race plays a significant role in medical school admissions. Chokal-Ingam, a former medical school student and the brother of actress Mindy Kaling, claims he was rejected by medical schools in part because it’s more difficult to apply as an Indian American. What makes Chokal-Ingam’s story so amazing is not that he was rejected, but that he reapplied and was accepted—after claiming to be an African American.
Chokal-Ingam describes his story in detail on a website promoting his forthcoming book, titled "Almost Black: The True Story of an Indian American Who Got Into Medical School Pretending to Be An African American":
“In my junior year of college, I realized that I didn’t have the grades or test scores to get into medical school, at least not as an Indian-American. Still, I was determined to become a doctor and I knew that admission standards for certain minorities under affirmative action were, let’s say … less stringent? … Vijay the Indian-American frat boy become Jojo the African American Affirmative Action applicant to medical school.”
Chokal-Ingam’s story highlights a largely unknown issue dominating medical schools: the rising importance of race in the medical school admissions process.
According to the American Medical Association (AMA), between 2013 and 2015 applicants to medical school who self-identified as “Black or African American” were significantly more likely to be accepted with relatively mediocre grades and MCAT scores compared to “White” or “Asian” applicants.
(AP/Johns Hopkins Medicine)
More than 41 percent of black applicants with an MCAT score between 24 and 26 and a grade point average between 3 and 3.19 were accepted into medical school, compared to 7.9 percent for white applicants and 2.9 percent for Asian applicants.
“Hispanic or Latino” applicants with the same academic profile experienced higher acceptance rates as well. More than 29 percent were accepted between 2013 and 2015.
The advantage enjoyed by African American and Hispanic applicants over white and Asian applicants has been justified by many as necessary to ensure underserved minority populations receive needed health care. The theory is that if doctors are predominantly white and Asian, they won’t want to spend time serving the health care needs of impoverished African Americans or Hispanics.
Liliana Garces, a professor at Penn State University, says research supports that claim.
“Doctors of color are more likely than their white peers to work within communities of color,” Garces said.
A closer look at the policies supported by Garces, many in the AMA, and numerous medical colleges across the country reveals multiple problems with racial profiling.
First, the advantages given to medical school applicants based on race do not typically take household income into account, so the African American children of very wealthy heart surgeons are inexplicably given an admissions advantage over an Asian student from an impoverished inner-city neighborhood. Rather than assume African American and Hispanic candidates are likely to serve lower-income communities, medical schools should simply identify candidates, regardless of race, who desire to serve impoverished groups.
Second, the race categories are exceptionally broad and put many historically impoverished communities under racial designations many think of as wealthy. For instance, a lower-income Pakistani or Ukrainian applicant would be classified under the current system as “White” or “Asian.”
Third, as Mark J. Perry reports for the American Enterprise Institute, in several states, including California, Florida, New Hampshire, and Texas, it is illegal for state colleges to give an admissions advantage to applicants based on race. Because medical school-specific data are often not available publicly, it’s very hard to tell whether colleges in these states are violating the law, but many experts, including Perry, suggest this is a very real possibility given the national data.
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Some may be inclined to think medical school admissions advantages based on race lead to less-qualified doctors or create an environment where many inept applicants sneak into medical school because they happen to have the “correct” skin color. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is virtually all of those who are accepted into medical school are more than qualified to be medical doctors—but so are thousands of others who do not get accepted into medical school.
For more than 10 years, less than half of all medical school applicants end up matriculating into a medical school each year, even though the quality of the average medical school applicant and the need for doctors have been rising significantly, according to data provided by the Association of American Medical Colleges. Demand is not coming close to meeting supply, even though medical college applicants are more talented than ever.
In a truly free-market system—one where the number of students in medical school is not heavily regulated by AMA or other government-approved associations—the number of doctors will be determined by the demand for doctors, and medical experts will go wherever the patients are. Instead of trying to manipulate the health care market using racial profiling and strict market controls, the health care market should be ruled by the natural forces of the free market—the very same forces that have historically served as the foundation for the rise of the world’s most advanced medical system.
Justin Haskins (Jhaskins@heartland.org) is the editor of The Heartland Institute, a pro-liberty policy center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Ill. Disclosure: His wife is a graduate of Rush College of Medicine and is currently in a neurosurgical residency program.
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