A student in a WWAMI classroom at the University of Idaho in 2020. (Courtesy of the University of Idaho)
Idaho ranks near the bottom of states in the country for number of active primary care physicians, and 49th for active physicians overall. According to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, nearly every corner of Idaho, or 98%, has a shortage of primary care physicians, and every county has a shortage of mental health care professionals. Approximately 94% have a shortage of dental health care workers.
That’s one reason the University of Idaho is launching its first phase of a fundraising initiative called “Brave. Bold. A Promise to Idaho’s Students” today that will prioritize funding scholarships for students, with a particular focus on the university’s medical school.
The Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho Regional Medical Education Program, known as WWAMI, is Idaho’s only medical school that is partially funded by state dollars. It’s also the medical school that produces the most rural physicians for the state, with incentives available for those who decide to practice in a rural area of Idaho.
The program is part of the University of Washington’s School of Medicine and is a top medical school for family medicine and rural medicine training, according to U.S. News & World Report. Every applicant who joins the Idaho branch of the program is an Idaho resident, said regional dean and director Jeff Seegmiller, which right now is about 40 students per year.
It’s logical to assume medical school applications might be down during a global pandemic, especially in Idaho where health care professionals have been targeted by protesters and blamed for COVID-19 deaths. But Seegmiller said the school has seen an increase of about 20% in applications, which Seegmiller said could be linked to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“Now more than ever we need your talent, your energy, your resolve and your character,” Fauci told a group of new medical graduates in May 2020.
“The whole school of medicine has seen an increase, and medical schools across the country,” Seegmiller said. “… It couldn’t be a better time to support medical students. During a worldwide pandemic, we need people to think about going into medicine and not worry about the cost.”
That cost at the University of Idaho’s program is about $80,000 per year, with state support covering roughly half of tuition and leaving $40,000 per year on the student. And that’s just tuition — many more dollars are spent on supplies, internships and other associated activities.
“It’s very expensive to go to medical school, and so the idea and the opportunity is that we can defer some of the cost of medical school so that a student that chooses to go into medicine can actually have options, so the debt is not determining where they have to practice,” Seegmiller said.
Endowment established by Idaho resident will fund scholarships in perpetuity
The initiative has already raised $12 million for scholarships through one donor named John Huckabay, who has lived in Coeur d’Alene for many years but graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in chemical engineering.
Huckabay’s family owned a chemical company that sold for a large sum decades ago, and for the better part of 40 years, he has been donating to the University of Washington and the University of Idaho. All told, he has donated over $40 million to the Idaho medical program and supported scholarships for more than 1,000 medical students.
“Up until about three years ago, I knew pretty much every student that was impacted by it,” Huckabay said. Because of COVID and other factors, he isn’t as in touch with them anymore, but he still sees the importance of supporting those students.
“We really focus on need-based (scholarships), so ones that are need-based are usually the students that are very grateful for the support, so you have a tremendous amount of contact with them,” Huckabay said. Sometimes he has provided additional financial support on top of the scholarships, particularly to students of color.
Huckabay has established the largest single endowment with the University of Idaho called the Durward and Susan Huckabay WWAMI Endowment, which is named after his grandparents. Durward Huckabay was his grandfather, who graduated from Tulane University and worked as a rural primary care physician in the South.
“We’ve always been focused on family care,” Huckabay said. “… We have a lot more chronic, long-term illnesses, and family care practitioners are very much needed for that.”
About half of graduates from the multi-state medical program become family care doctors, pediatricians, internal medicine doctors or general medical practitioners.
“Some of the other universities are in the 14% to 15% range, so it’s in the top in the nation for family practices. Of the students we’ve supported, it’s 70% to 75% going to family practices,” Huckabay said.
University of Idaho Chief Marketing Officer Teresa Koeppel said the endowment is invested, which will have a long-term effect on students.
“Proceeds from those investments are what funds those scholarships, so it will spin off scholarships in perpetuity,” Koeppel said. “So he’s not just benefiting students today, it will be benefiting students for generations. It’s a true lasting legacy.”
University of Idaho president: In the absence of state funding, scholarships are key
Scott Green, president of the University of Idaho, said he hopes the “Brave. Bold” fundraising campaign increases the number of students across Idaho who choose to pursue higher education and go on to work for Idaho businesses.
“We’ve held five industry summits over the course of the last year or so, and in our discussions with businesses and leaders around the state, they all really said the same thing to us, which is more than ever they need student graduates who are ready to work, who are ready to meet growing demand,” Green said. “Most of our businesses here in the state recognize this is a great place for them, but they’re very concerned about (the) workforce and their ability to remain in the state if we can’t provide that workforce.”
In addition to scholarships, Green said large businesses across the state have been asking for more programs that would help connect students with internships and jobs at various companies, especially engineering businesses. The university is also planning to revamp its career services department to better match students with jobs where they are most needed, and increase its experiential learning opportunities.
“It’s really in almost every discipline you could imagine,” Green said. “One of the things that became clear in our discussions is the need for soft skills as well, like the critical thinking that is developed here.”
The university has had a declining number of out-of-state applicants, Green said, and that has resulted in lower enrollment numbers, but in-state applications for freshmen classes are up.
“Historically, the University of Idaho has always done pretty well with bringing students in and graduating them, and we really want to make sure we’re lowering those barriers to entry,” Green said.
In addition to Huckabay’s medical program donations, the university has received $3.2 million in donations from Clint and Kim Marshall, Gary Michael and Mel and Charlotte Van Dyke to help with what the university calls “The $5,000 gap,” which is the average dollar amount students fall short of meeting yearly for the costs of attendance. The university had a 59% graduation rate in 2020, which Green said in a press release is the highest of any public university in Idaho, but “extraordinarily unacceptable.”
Green said the university has not increased tuition for the past two years and is doing everything possible to keep costs down, but in the absence of more support from the state, fundraising will be needed to avoid further tuition hikes. Given recent battles in the Idaho Legislature over funding for higher education institutions, Green said they have to look to other options.
“We’ve got a lot of friends in the Legislature, and I really believe most of them want to do the right thing for higher education,” Green said. “But we’ve been underfunded for decades now, and we’ve made up for it with raising tuition. We really want to shift that to scholarships. That’s where we’re going to be focused for the next few months. We’ll deal with the Legislature and look forward to working with them when they come back into session.”
The university will celebrate the launch of the campaign at 5:30 p.m. tonight at the new Idaho Central Credit Union Arena in Moscow, with Gov. Brad Little, alumni and students. The event will be livestreamed.
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