Pharmacy schools getting more competitive and exclusive

June 16, 2008

Demand for pharmacists and rising salaries is fueling increased competition among pharmacy school applicants.

Pharmacy school is not what it used to be: it's more competitive, more expensive, and more difficult to get into. And it seems unlikely that will change any time soon.

According to data compiled by the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, more than 95,000 applications were received for the 2007 school year. Unfortunately for most of those applicants, there were only 11,557 places available. At the Arnold & Marie Schwartz College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences, Long Island University, for example, there are an average 10 students applying for each spot available.

"The last five to seven years have seen a progressively growing pool of well-qualified applicants to all the schools and colleges of pharmacy," explained Lucinda Maine, Ph.D., R.Ph., AACP's executive VP.

Pharmacy schools have made some steps to meet the increased demand. In addition to a few new schools that have begun to accept prospective pharmacy students, many schools have increased the capacity of their existing campuses to meet demand. A number of schools have also opened satellite campuses as a way to meet the interest of students, and, of course, adress the shortage of trained pharmacists. Since 1999 pharmacy schools have grown their capacity to educate pharmacy students by 44%, adding 3,400 seats.

There are limits to how much pharmacy schools can respond to the need, however. Many schools are having difficulty attracting new faculty. Even more important, many states are facing budget crunches that will likely siphon off badly needed funds for expanding facilities. And even the profession is finding it difficult to meet the educational demands. "We caught the profession off guard," admitted Maine. "The number of students that need an experiential rotation has doubled recently and there aren't enough locations for them."

According to Maine, the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education recently urged pharmacy schools to slow down expansion plans.

The result is a finite number of spaces for students and growing interest from them. Maine also credits the move to Pharm.D. degrees as an important step towards establishing the profession. "It's a lot more like medical or dentistry school now," she said. "We are attracting more mature students."

A question of concern, though, is the impact of rising costs for pharmacy schools. "We know that higher education is costing students more and professional education is substantially more," Maine explained. "We don't know if a more serious economic downturn will impact students' ability to afford pharmacy school." The debt burden for graduating students is on average between $75,000 and $100,000.

For the moment at least, pharmacy educators are happy with the quality of students the schools are attracting. "There never has been a more capable set of students," Maine insisted. "This is an amazing group of students. They are not all 4.0s. The schools are looking for other characteristics like maturity and professional experience. It really bodes well for the next generation of pharmacists."