A new state-supported scholarship at the Medical University of South Carolina could help keep top students in the state and also address health care needs in rural and underserved areas, proponents said.
The legislature's House Ways and Means Committee added $5 million for the SCFirst Scholarship to its budget, which should be voted on next week. MUSC had been seeking $10 million but is going to match whatever state funding it gets with private donations.
The chairman of the House budget-writing committee said he supports MUSC getting the full $10 million it requested. But the proposal to be debated on the House floor starting March 13 had to be in balance. Ways and Means Chairman Bruce Bannister said he expects state revenue updates for the coming fiscal year to change next month, giving legislators more money to work with before the budget is finished.
"We anticipate that will be a substantial number and by the time the budget’s finished, like the difference between $10 and $5 (million), we’ll be able to fix," said Bannister, R-Greenville.
MUSC has not benefited from lottery funding for scholarships the way other South Carolina universities have because that funding was intended for undergraduate programs, said Chief of Government Affairs Mark Sweatman.
That has hurt its ability to attract some students from the state, he said.
"We’ve seen a lot of our applicants in the past, those that wanted to go to MUSC first, we’ve seen them go out of state with full-ride scholarships," he said. "And you certainly can’t blame those students."
That some top students are being incentivized to go to better offers elsewhere, "they're not wrong about that," said House Assistant Majority Leader Jay West, R-Belton. "I think we need to keep our best and brightest in state."
Exact numbers are hard to determine because state databases don't track students that way. But at the MUSC College of Medicine, among students who initially accepted and then chose to go elsewhere, one of the big reasons cited was the dearth of scholarships available, said Charlotte Kerr, director of admissions.
First-year in-state medical school tuition at MUSC is $37,500 a year, and then varies by year after that, with potentially a $150,000 price tag over four years.
The issue is particularly important for the rural and underserved areas of the state, which the scholarship program will pay close attention to.
"It’s hard to go to rural areas when you have a huge debt burden," Sweatman said, and the prospects of making that up are more difficult.
Scholarships would help free students from that so "you are going to be more likely to go back to your rural area, back to your hometown and serve rural and underserved patients. And that’s the goal of this," he said.
It is a big area of need for the state that the scholarship could help address, West said.
"I think it is tremendous in helping us address the deficit of medical care in the rural areas," he said. "And I think it is an innovative solution."
It helps the state overall as well, Bannister said.
"Everything we’re doing related to nurses, doctors, medical school costs, residencies, all of that is to incentivize the doctors to stay here," he said. "We feel like if they’re doing residencies and going to school here, we’ve got a chance of keeping them."
Of those who completed residencies in South Carolina from 2011 to 2020, 57.3 percent of those doctors stayed to practice in South Carolina, according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges. But that rises to 75-80 percent if they also went to medical school in the state, Sweatman said.