With $250 Million Gift, Columbia Medical School Looks to End Student Debt

“We think that this will make a really important impact on the future careers of our graduates, who will be able to follow their dreams, which was what I was able to do,” he said.

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The couple also funded the construction of the Vagelos Education Center at the medical school, which is filled with high-tech classrooms and facilities.

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Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

It will take several years for the endowment to begin generating the income to fund the full range of scholarships. In time, the school believes that the gift, combined with additional donations still being sought, will allow all of its students to attend without incurring debt. For the neediest students, the scholarships would also cover living expenses.

Free rides in medical education are very rare, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, a nonprofit organization that represents medical schools. One such program is at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, where a $100-million fund, announced several years ago, covers the entire cost of medical school for all four years, including tuition, fees, books and living expenses for roughly 20 percent of its students. But that program is based on merit, not need. A small medical school at the Cleveland Clinic that focuses on research is also fully funded.

Most of the roughly 20,000 students per year enrolled in American medical schools take out hefty federal loans to support their studies. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, in 2017, the median debt for graduating medical students was $192,000. The median cost of medical school attendance, including living expenses, was $60,945 per year for public medical school and $82,278 for private medical school.

Dr. Vagelos served as chief executive officer of Merck & Co. Inc. for nine years, from 1985 to 1994. After leaving the global health care company, Dr. Vagelos became chairman of the board of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, a successful biotechnology company. He grew up in Westfield, N.J., as a son of Greek immigrants who ran a small restaurant.

At Merck, Dr. Vagelos led an effort by the company to provide for free a drug that combats the parasite that causes river blindness. Since 1987, free annual doses of the drug, mectizan, have been provided to hundreds of millions of people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, greatly reducing the public…

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