Across the country, applications to medical schools are at an all-time high, increasing by nearly 20% over last year. It’s no different at UT Health San Antonio’s Long School of Medicine.

“We are seeing a 20% increase in applications. Last year we had a total of 5,317 completed applications, and this year we have more than 6,300,” said Judianne Kellaway, MD, MEd, FACS, School of Medicine.

Likewise, applications to graduate school programs, including the sciences, are surging nationwide and at UT Health San Antonio. The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences has seen a 40% increase in applications to its doctoral programs, said Nicquet Blake, PhD, senior associate dean of the school.

While some have attributed the increases to the focus on science and the heroic work of health professionals in fighting COVID-19, the so-called “Fauci Effect,” named after Anthony Fauci, MD, the country’s chief medical adviser, Drs. Kellaway and Blake are not among them. They suggest that more time to complete the application process as well as a weakened economy are responsible for the rising numbers.

Applying to medical school, Dr. Kellaway said, “is a marathon. You can’t just pick up the application and fill it out because you’re suddenly inspired. Last year, schools went online, labs were cut, some courses were not offered. People had research and trips and activities shut down last summer. They had more time. The application is not an easy document. There are more than 250 questions, and it generates a huge document. The actual time to do it is considerable. And there was more time to study for the entry test, the MCAT.”

In addition, Dr. Kellaway said, most medical schools, including the Long School of Medicine, extended the deadlines for various parts of the application process due to the pandemic.

Regarding admission to graduate school, Dr. Blake said, “there are certain things you need, one of them being research experience. So it’s not really like a student can watch the pandemic happen and say, oh, I think I want to go learn science.”

The economy, too, drives decisions on career paths, she added.

“When there is fear in the economy, whether that fear is based on financial pressures, like a recession, or based on health concerns, people will start to look to the academy for solutions,” Dr. Blake said. “We just went through a period when unemployment was sky high. So kids are graduating from college and they’re like, whoa, I can’t find a job. And, therefore, school is Option B, and that’s OK.”

UT Health San Antonio’s School of Nursing has seen an increase in bachelor’s degree in nursing applications from 300 per cycle to nearly 600 per cycle, said David A. Byrd, PhD, associate dean for admissions and student services.

“We are attributing the increase more to the fact that we waived the TEAS entry exam throughout the pandemic due to a lack of safe testing locations — especially in under-served communities,” he added.

But the nursing school did see a significant decline in applications to its graduate programs, and consequently, admissions also decreased, Dr. Byrd added. He said the school was not able to recruit as normal during the pandemic and that many nurses with a bachelor’s degree “appear to be holding off on the pursuit of in-person graduate education until the pandemic is over.”

In the School of Health Professions, “most programs have held consistent with applicants, but we have had more awareness of the respiratory care program,” said David L. Henzi, EdD, associate dean for academic and student affairs.

“Many COVID patients have had some type of breathing challenge and respiratory therapy has played a key role to their recovery,” he said.

Kay H. Malone III, DDS, FAGD, professor of comprehensive dentistry and director of admissions for the School of Dentistry, said applications are down this year over last, although there is an 8% increase overall in all Texas dental school applicants. But he, too, said he believes the increase is due more to practical reasons — extended deadlines, the economy — than being inspired by scientists and medical heroes.

Many of those involved in the admissions process at health-related institutions across the country and at UT Health San Antonio agree that the pandemic has had beneficial side effects.

“Certainly, this challenging time has inspired people; there is no one unaffected by COVID and all of us see the positive rewards reaped from helping others in need,” said the Long School’s Dr. Kellaway. “It is inspirational and makes us want to reach out and help.”

Dr. Blake, from the graduate school, said, “I do think the population in general has a better appreciation of what science can do, which is what we do in the graduate school. The vaccine happened as quickly as it did because scientists have been working on [mRNA vaccine delivery] for the past 20 or 25 years. It’s not something that magically happened. There is now a better appreciation of that.”

As for the “Fauci Effect,” stay tuned.

“If the increases continue over the next few years, that might be a better indicator of premeds being inspired by the pandemic,” Dr. Kellaway said.