TAMPA — The University of South Florida's Morsani College of Medicine is attracting a larger and higher performing pool of applicants, in part because of the new facilities it plans in downtown, officials said Thursday.
The number of applicants has increased 40 percent over the past two years, with 6,200 students vying for 170 positions this year. And those admitted last year had higher scores on the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, than any other first-year medical school class in the state.
Charles Lockwood, dean of the college and senior vice president of USF Health, delivered those rosy numbers to the USF Board of Trustees, saying they had significantly improved the school's rankings on several national reports.
He said the MCAT score, which was an average of 34 out of 45 points, puts USF among the top 20 medical schools in the nation as measured by the Association of American Medical Colleges, which administers the test.
"Frankly, I'm stunned," Lockwood told the trustees. "It's staggering, actually. And the caliber of students is also very, very high."
While admitted students haven't been polled on exactly why they chose USF's medical school, Lockwood said he has a number of theories on the reasons — not the least of which are the new facilities the college will call home in downtown Tampa along with the USF Health Heart Institute.
This year's entering class will spend at least some time in the new $157 million, 11-story medical school, and the class admitted in 2019 will be exclusively downtown, Lockwood said. The new buildings are at the center of plans by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik to redevelop land around Amalie Arena and the Channel District.
Vinik donated the land for the medical school and heart institute, and he will build a parking garage and medical office buildings for the school. Work groups at USF Health are meeting with architects to figure out what the building will look like, Lockwood said.
"If even half of Jeff Vinik's vision is realized, this is going to be spectacular," he said.
Adding to the buzz around the college is the decision to re-purpose the nearby USF Center for Advanced Medical Learning & Simulation for student use. The $38 million facility, known as CAMLS, opened in 2012 as a money-making venture to train medical professionals on the latest medical equipment and develop new technologies. But that changed in February when officials learned CAMLS hadn't lived up to expectations financially and decided to make it an academic facility.
Students already are taking some courses in CAMLS, Lockwood said, and more will move there in the next six months.
"This year we began to take the applicants through CAMLS and say 'You actually are going to be trained here.' And that may help account for why this is such a super competitive class," Lockwood said. "I met with a bunch of them there and they were really saying, 'Wow, there's nothing like this.'"
In recent years, the college has reformatted it's curriculum to add more hands-on, "active learning." It also has added programs for students who may be more interested in public policy, health care administration or population health than a specialty-focused bioscience.
Along with the other changes, Lockwood said, it all resulted in a surge in applications that far surpasses the national increase of 4 to 5 percent a year. He said the growing applicant pool allows the college to be more selective.
In the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings, USF rose in two categories over the last year — from 79th in the nation to 63rd in research, and from 85th to 67th in primary care.
The two biggest drivers of the U.S. News rankings are MCAT scores and grants from the National Institutes of Health.
Board of Trustees chairman Harold Mullis questioned whether MCAT scores and other traditional rankings are the best indicator of a student's success in the program.
"Google … doesn't even ask job applicants about test scores or grades because they have found they are not reliable information in predicting the success of individual applicants," Mullis said. "It's a changing world right now."
But Lockwood said research shows that MCAT scores are the best indicator of success among doctors. Those with high scores have been shown to have fewer malpractice suits filed against them and greater patient satisfaction, he said.
The medical school has made progress with its own customer satisfaction by easing students' debt loads. Its tuition hasn't increased since 2012, and the amount of scholarship funding from alumni has increased. Less than 15 percent of students graduate with more than $200,000 in debt, compared to the national mean of about 30 percent for other schools accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education.
"You can imagine having debt from college and then another $200,000 of debt from medical school it's going to influence your decision about what field to go into," Lockwood said. "The country needs primary care and general surgeons, but this may make you want to go into neurosurgery or dermatology."