It may come as a surprise to many young Arkansans applying for medical school that their MCAT scores are not the only item to be weighted in the admissions process at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

According to Dr. Richard Wheeler, executive associate dean for academic affairs at the UAMS College of Medicine, the Congressional district in which an applicant resides is weighted in the admissions decision.

“State law says we have to admit 150 students a year. Seventy percent of them have to be equally divided among the (state’s) four districts,” Wheeler said.

That amounts to about 27 individuals from each district. State law also dictates that the medical school cannot admit more than 15% of an incoming class from out of state.

If the weight given to Congressional districts seems odd, that’s because it is, according to Wheeler, who said he believes UAMS is the only medical school in the nation to have such a requirement on its admissions procedures.

“A lot of states with public medical schools like us have a preference for its (students to be) from across the state. That’s fairly common,” he said. “I believe there’s even a few states where they can’t admit any (students) except citizens of their own state.”

But no state has a law like Arkansas, which Wheeler said came into existence around 1985 when the Legislature agreed to fund an education building on the UAMS campus in Little Rock. It was also around the time that the College of Medicine increased its enrollment from 135 students admitted each year to 150.

According to Wheeler, last year’s applicant pool was proportioned as follows:

• District 1 – 65 applicants
• District 2 – 117 applicants
• District 3 – 70 applicants
• District 4 – 58 applicants

There were also 2,056 out-of-state applicants. Wheeler said in theory, as many as 46 of those out-of-state applicants could be admitted based on state law, though he said only 18 were admitted to last year’s entering class of 174 medical students.

While on the surface the admissions process could appear weighted to be unfair to the high number of applicants from the Second Congressional District, Wheeler said it was not necessarily true.

He said once students have submitted their applications, each applicant from the state of Arkansas is interviewed by a curriculum committee whose makeup is also dictated by state law. It consists of 15 people – six from UAMS, two representatives from each Congressional district and one at-large member from any district. There are also four committee members who hold faculty appointments at UAMS, which Wheeler said the school interprets “to mean that faculty members from the (UAMS) health centers throughout the state can be part of this.”

Once the interviews are completed, the committee members review each applicant’s complete application file and give them a ranking of one to seven.

“Then we simply take those, add them up and divide by 15, and then we come up with an average score of (all) students. Students are put into one organic rank list. Then we go through where we would cut if (we were to admit last year’s class size of) just 174. Then we have to go up and count to make sure we have 27 people from each district. Almost always we don’t, so in that case we have to go down lower and displace some people who were in district two with people who were lower on the admissions committee’s list to get at least 27 from each district. We do sometimes displace people from the bottom of the list who would have otherwise been admitted,” Wheeler said.

The admissions process, he said, is designed to comply with state law, though he said if admitting a student with subpar academic credentials would put the school’s accreditation at risk, “we don’t have to follow the law. It’s difficult to define and there has never been a situation where that would be a problem.”

“We follow the law exactly as we can to make sure we have at least 27 from each congressional district and that we have proper balance to report to the Legislative Council on the makeup of (each) class,” he said.

Reached for comment, Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, whose state House District is in the Second Congressional District and includes the main UAMS campus, said he was not familiar with the law and “wouldn’t want to comment on something unless I’ve had a chance to look at it.”

Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, whose state House District also lies within the Second Congressional District, said he was surprised to hear that the law was in effect.

“I would say that those 150 slots should go to the 150 best students regardless of where they’re from in the state,” he said.

Meeks said one reason many in the state legislature are likely unaware of the issue is due to the state’s laws regarding length of service for lawmakers.

“There’s probably not a whole lot of awareness. With our term limits as strict as they are, by the time you start to find out what’s going on, you term out,” he added.

Meeks, who confirmed today he would seek his third and last term as a representative, said the admissions procedures at the UAMS College of Medicine “would bear some scrutiny” should he be re-elected to another term in the state legislature.

“It might be something I would be interested in looking at,” he said.

Wheeler was clear in saying for most applicants, the law regarding residency within a particular Congressional District did not impact the school’s admissions decisions.

“If you’re the bottom guy in the list and displaced by someone from another district, that’s unfortunate and I suppose you could say that puts them at a disadvantage. But for the vast majority of people, it doesn’t matter what district you’re from. If your credentials are placing you at the top of the list, it doesn’t matter. It’s certainly not a disadvantage for people from district two who apply. Either (you’re) in the 174 or down far enough where it doesn’t matter,” Wheeler said.