There was an urgent need for doctors, particularly doctors of color, in 2020 when Morgan State University said it would partner with a private company to launch a medical college.

The announcement was met with fanfare and community support for the Maryland College of Osteopathic Medicine, which would be the first new medical school at a historically Black college in 50 years. It was supposed to open by this year.

That hasn’t happened.

Construction of its building hasn’t started, funding appears uncertain and it’ll be at least another two years before students enroll. The private, for-profit college appears to have few employees, and its ownership is murky.

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Morgan State’s partner on the medical school, Salud Education LLC, did not respond to repeated requests for interviews. And, in something of a mysterious turn, Morgan officials, too, are mum. An email from a Morgan spokesperson referred questions to medical school officials, noting “though affiliated with Morgan State University, the proposed medical school operates as a separate entity.”

A lone official defended the work. Dr. John Sealey, the founding dean, said opening a quality for-profit medical school is achievable — and necessary — given the need for doctors and the unlikelihood of public funding.

“There’s no chance it would happen otherwise,” he said.

He acknowledged fundraising was behind schedule but says there is enough money committed to put the college back on track. He expects Salud to apply by month’s end for pre-accreditation with a new goal: enroll students in 2026, three years later than proposed.

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The case for a new college

The Morgan-affiliated college would join medical schools at the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland in Baltimore, along with a proposed nonprofit medical school at Meritus Health in Western Maryland. The Morgan and Meritus schools would train osteopathic doctors, who study a similar curriculum as other medical doctors but take a more holistic treatment approach.

Sealey insisted producing quality doctors, not profit, is the medical school’s top motivation. He called the planned $55,000-a-year tuition affordable. It’s also the national average for osteopathic education.

Sealey cited a projected doctor shortage of 30,000 by 2034, and only four medical schools at historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. He said Morgan State could serve as a pre-med hub. Morgan plans, for example, to offer a new master’s degree in biomedical science that could keep quality students in the state and headed into medicine.

Sealey said he has no ownership stake in the college. Salud, the owner, is a private company founded in 2017 in Denver. It appears to be incorporated only in Delaware under the name Medical Impact Company LLC.

Salud hasn’t launched another medical school. Its website says the founders have developed or acquired seven colleges of medicine, though their roles are unclear.

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Dr. George Mychaskiw, Salud’s chief academic and medical officer, is listed as a co-founder of the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine. In a 2022 news article, Mychaskiw also said he helped develop the Idaho College of Osteopathic Medicine, though a spokesperson for the college said his role was limited to recruiting the founding dean, who has since left.

Sealey said Salud initially applied for accreditation in 2022 and was supposed to be able to enroll students by 2025. But the college hasn’t achieved “candidate status,” according to the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation, which would allow it to enroll students within two years.

Salud’s application to the Maryland Higher Education Commission shows the college would need $30 million to meet a new federal requirement to set aside funds sufficient for students to finish their education if the college closes. Risk of such a closure rose following the pandemic, said Jessica Duren, spokesperson for the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

“Most closures have been small, tuition-dependent undergraduate institutions, somewhat more in the for-profit sector than nonprofit,” she said.

Questions about for-profit schools

Most for-profit medical schools are fairly new. Just six have opened since 2000, according to a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive research and policy organization.

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By approving only nonprofit medical schools for decades, “regulators hoped to guard against a repeat of the documented history of school owners increasing their revenue and reducing expenses by cutting corners on the quality of instruction and equipment, overcharging students, and enrolling unqualified students,” Robert Shireman wrote in a 2002 New England Journal of Medicine paper.

Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, counted more than 40 nonprofit medical schools approved since 2000.

He said the doctor shortage and the influx of doctors from for-profit overseas medical schools, along with a court ruling for a proposed for-profit law school, affected accreditation agencies’ decisions to again consider for-profit schools.

The new colleges can’t participate in the federal student loan program until the first class graduates, so students may need private, higher-interest loans. That can make the total student debt far higher.

Assessing for-profit colleges’ quality can also be difficult, as many for-profits don’t reveal their graduates’ match rates with medical residencies, the postgraduate training required for doctors.

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Shireman said in an interview that he struggled to identify the ownership structure and boards of directors of several for-profit medical schools. He said murkiness not only shields who controls financial and academic decisions but also may be misleading students by creating an impression they are under public control because they are affiliated with public universities, as the Morgan-affiliated college would be.

By using federal data for offshore for-profit medical schools, he found student debt after graduation to be tens of thousands of dollars higher than nonprofit schools and match rates for residencies to be lower, 61% compared to about 94%, according to the National Resident Matching Program.

He called it “a recipe for predatory behavior.”

“Ultimately, these schools are accountable to their owners,” he said. “Their owners are corporations, and by definition they are for-profits, extracting value for investors.”

Moving ahead at Morgan

At least one potential instructor said he was not deterred by the Morgan college’s for-profit status.

Dr. Darrell Gray, president and CEO of the Medicaid management firm Wellpoint Maryland, said the college’s mission was vital. He contacted Sealey after reading a news article about the proposed college and said Wellpoint’s foundation would donate $150,000.

“This was an opportunity to partner with an institution also invested in providing culturally competent health care,” he said.

Sealey said the construction of a 100,000-square-foot building on Morgan’s Northeast Baltimore campus would begin soon. It would open in 2027 on the site of the old Montebello hospital complex.

Ascension Saint Agnes Hospital in Baltimore plans to serve as a clinical training site for medical students.

The state Board of Public Works approved a $425,000-a-year lease agreement for an initial 35 years, with two 10-year extensions. Sealey and an assistant currently rent a small space on Morgan’s campus, where he has been vetting teaching candidates.

“There are always going to be barriers,” he said. “We want everyone to know we are still on track.”

The Morgan-affiliated college listed several letters of support from the community, many of which shared the desire for more doctors who would stay and practice in underserved areas of Maryland.

Through their application to the Maryland Higher Education Commission, Morgan college officials identified funding from Morgan’s foundation and a technical college in Pennsylvania, which did not respond to requests for comment.

Salud said in the application it had hired an investment bank to identify more investors but didn’t name it.

The application also listed funding from Meritus Health, a large Western Maryland health care provider. Meritus officials expressed continued support for the Morgan college but said it would not contribute due to the cost of its own medical school.

Meritus, which applied to the same accreditation agency as Morgan in 2022, has preliminary approvals and plans to enroll students next year. It expects to pay the $250 million cost of the nonprofit college with hospital system and philanthropic funds, along with a small state grant. Its medical school building should be complete by year’s end, and it broke ground on student housing in May.

Maulik Joshi, president of Meritus Health and the proposed college, and Dr. Paula Gregory, the dean, said they want both Meritus’ and Morgan’s medical schools to succeed.

“There are needs in Baltimore for more doctors, and our needs are just as great,” Gregory said. “We support each other’s mission.”