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How can dental schools attract more underrepresented minorities?

By Richard W. Valachovic, D.M.D., M.P.H.
President and CEO of the American Dental Education Association

The Sullivan Alliance is pleased to welcome its first guest blogger Richard W. Valachovic, D.M.D., M.P.H. Dr. Valachovic is President and CEO of the American Dental Education Association.

Despite significant recent efforts and investments by the American Dental Education Association (ADEA), various foundations, and many others, there has not been significant substantial increase in the percentage of underrepresented minorities (URMs) entering dental schools.

Richard W. Valachovic For example, the National Dental Pipeline Program, which is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has helped dental schools increase access to dental care for underserved populations. Specifically, the Dental Pipeline Program aimed to increase cultural competency of all students, educate dental students through community rotations in health centers and other safety-net settings, and to recruit and admit more students who come from underserved communities. A complementary program, the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP) is a six-week summer residential program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and led by ADEA and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) that strengthens the knowledge and skills of underserved college students in order to increase their chances of getting into medical and dental schools. Throughout the 2000s, the program helped to increase the number of URM applicants and enrollees. However, during this same period the overall number of applicants grew dramatically by 55%, which means the growth in non-URM applicants has overshadowed the URM applicants and now we see a leveling off of the number of African American applicants, which is of great concern.

Currently ADEA is working to reshape the way dental schools approach admissions. We know from our research that there are more than enough qualified applicants from all racial and ethnic groups. Dental schools must examine their institutional missions and clearly connect their admissions practices with that mission. If a dental school wants to graduate new dentists who can serve a diverse patient population, who are responsive to both socioeconomic and cultural differences, schools must have an admissions policy that focuses on more than simply grade point averages and Dental Admissions Test scores. An analysis of data from the ADEA Survey of Dental School Seniors, 2007 Graduating Class and found that students with a lower parental income (less than or equal to $50,000) are more likely to plan to practice in public service (community clinics or government service) than students with higher parental income (more than $50,000). Furthermore, we also know that all students benefit from diverse learning environments. Educating dentists to serve a diverse patient population requires teaching cultural competency not only in the classroom but also the dental school clinic. Research also shows us that teaching cultural competency is enhanced by a diverse student body and faculty since we learn from those around us.

One clear leader in aligning university mission with admissions policy is the Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health (ASDOH). At ASDOH recruitment and retention of underrepresented minority students into the health professions is a central priority and its parent institution, A. T. Still University (ATSU). In fact, the university has tapped Dr. Christopher Halliday, a dentist with strong ties to the American Indian community, to lead its new dental school in Kirksville, Missouri. Having served as the chief dental officer of the Indian Health Service for many years, this retired rear admiral from the U.S. Public Health Service is well positioned to continue the recruitment efforts modeled on ATSU’s Arizona campus.

That philosophy of actively recruiting and retaining underrepresented minority students informs the school’s admissions policies. ASDOH selects students based as much on their demonstrated willingness and desire to serve the community as on their academic prowess and it shows. ASDOH’s first seven classes averaged between 500 and 691 community service hours per admitted student, with some students logging more than 2,000 hours. As for more traditional measures, ASDOH has put dental school within reach of less academically accomplished students by setting its minimum grade point average (GPA) at 2.5, below that of many other dental schools, and deemphasizing the Dental Admission Test (DAT), since minority applicants have typically not scored well on these standardized exams.

In a new effort, ADEA partnered with University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry to launch the Dental Pipeline National Learning Institute (NLI). Over the next year, eleven selected dental institutions will be mentored by NLI. The project is an opportunity for dental educators and their community partners to address the problems of access and workforce disparities and ultimately the effort aims to create a diverse workforce of dentists who understand the oral healthcare needs of patients from underserved populations. NLI hopes to share key lessons from its work with California dental schools for past 10 years. Selected institutions will implement year-long recruitment and retention programs for underrepresented minority students by partnering with key community partners. These partners include minority-serving colleges and universities, Native American tribal organizations, and area health education centers.

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