Pharmacy schools preserve high standards as applicants ebb

Sandra Levy
Senior Editor
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Pharmacy students in the practice lab
Nova Southeastern University College of Pharmacy students in the practice lab

The business of educating pharmacists is not necessarily booming. In fact, the number of new pharmacy schools being formed today is stagnating, and the number of pharmacy school applicants has dropped dramatically compared with more than a decade ago. Both developments illustrate some of the challenges that pharmacy may face in the future. 

Currently, there are 144 pharmacy schools. While that number may seem large, the number of new pharmacy schools have been growing very slowly compared with 15 and even 10 years ago, Lucinda Maine, executive vice president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, said.

“We might have had a record seven or eight new schools to achieve pre-candidate status in one year, but only William Carey in Mississippi opened last year and the prior year there were none. In New York, there was a pharmacy school in formation, but they changed course and abandoned their plans,” she said. 

Part of the slow growth in new pharmacy schools can be attributed to a smaller-than-usual applicant pool. “The high water mark was 2010, and there are a ton of factors that are contributing to the decrease, some of which are completely out of our control, including the smallest number of high school graduates in a long number of years and more diversity in that cohort, including people of color who have not historically pursued healthcare careers proportionally to Caucasian and Asian colleagues,” Maine said.

Goar Alvarez, assistant dean of pharmacy services at Nova Southeastern University College of Pharmacy in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said academia responded to various reports in the early 2000s that indicated that there would be a shortage of pharmacists by 2020, anticipating that pharmacists would be in primary care roles.  

“It was anticipated that pharmacists would be much more involved in chronic disease management, treatment of minor acute issues, wellness and disease prevention, and other primary care roles.  Legislation and regulation do not appear to have caught up and continue to be barriers to empowering pharmacists to practice what we have been educated to do, which is to practice at the top of our licenses” Alvarez said. 

Going forward, National Community Pharmacists Association CEO Doug Hoey said it is important that the caliber of the next crop of pharmacy students accepted into pharmacy schools remains very high despite the drop in the number of applicants. Hoey said that while a pharmacist shortage existed 10 to 15 years ago, the industry needs to see a steady flow of qualified candidates. 

“It’s crucial that pharmacy schools are accepting only the best and brightest students just as they had to 10, 20, 30 years ago because there were so many applicants,” he said. “At times, the number of applicants for each available opening has been several applicants to every one opening. The ratio has gotten smaller, and while it doesn’t mean the quality of the accepted students has gone down, it means there’s a potential for that to happen. We have to really be very careful to make sure the caliber of student that is accepted into pharmacy school remains extremely high.”

The declining applicant pool of pharmacy students is frequently discussed by colleges of pharmacy administrators, faculty in Florida and around the country, Alvarez said. He has had conversations with pharmacy school deans who are adamant and committed to high-quality student enrollments and who are not willing to decrease the quality of the students entering pharmacy for the sake of filling class size. Like Hoey, Alvarex said the caliber of admitted students must remain high. 

“After all, these are the individuals that society will entrust their health and wellness to, and we want none other than top-notch professionals taking care of our pharmacotherapeutic needs,” he said. 

Aside from the stalled momentum in the creation of new pharmacy schools and the decline in applicants, the issue of stress among working pharmacists is one that pharmacy organizations are tackling. 

Maine said that many pharmacists are vocalizing that they may have made a mistake in going to pharmacy school, and she emphasized that these negative feelings are not unique to pharmacists. “Many physicians are not encouraging young people to pursue medicine because they’re feeling a lot of the same stresses,” she said.

Two years ago, AACP joined the National Academy of Medicine’s collaboration on clinician well-being. The fact that the American Society of Health Systems was the first pharmacy organization to join the collaboration, which was formed four years ago, is evidence that there are pressures in the hospital and health system sector, Maine said. “It’s not a pharmacy phenomenon, it’s a healthcare phenomenon.”