Spurring Interest in Pharmacy Careers Through Outreach and Accessibility

Of all applicants to U.S. pharmacy schools for the fall 2017 semester, 19.5 percent were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and of all the students who were accepted and enrolled that semester, 17 percent were from underrepresented groups.  

[Above: Participants in a UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy group project.]

These figures indicate that interest in the pharmacy profession and the barriers to it — as opposed to bias in admissions processes — may be to blame for the lack of people of color pursuing pharmacy education. It also reveals the need for those in the field to do a better job of creating pathways to and interest in the profession for these students.   

Considering the benefits of the profession and the reverberations of having more pharmacists of color, it’s important for individuals of all backgrounds to be aware of the possibilities offered by the field.

“It’s financially rewarding in terms of the projected growth in salary, and like some other health professions, pharmacy has one of the best work-life balances,” says Rosie Walker, director of recruitment and diversity for the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP). “There’s also a lot of different career paths you can go into: Pharmacists can work with patients and in hospital settings, they can work in labs in innovative research, they can even work in education.”

“Having room to grow within your field is another benefit of the profession,” she adds. 

One of the greatest challenges to improving the representation of people of color in pharmacy is their current low numbers in the profession: Most young people of color don’t know a pharmacist who looks like them. 

“The number one reason [students give] when we ask them why they chose pharmacy … [is] because they knew someone who was a pharmacist,” explains Walker. “I think that’s why there is a lack of underrepresented minorities. When students see pharmacists of different ethnic backgrounds who look like them, they see role models, they see mentors, and I think that is a driving factor in them going into the profession.”

Some organizations and schools, however, are working to remedy this growing problem through outreach and programming and by addressing these and other barriers to pharmacy education.

Outreach and Programming
Through its Pharmacy Is For Me (Pharm4Me) campaign — managed by Walker — AACP introduces middle and high school youth to the different career paths provided by the field and gives them the resources to begin exploring pharmacy as a profession. 

“Pharm4Me really highlights skill sets outside of just science and chemistry — social skills like being a good listener, being a good problem-solver,” Walker says. 

Carla White

The campaign hosts events and activities designed to expose young people to the field to stimulate an interest in pharmacy careers; these include school and career fairs as well as competitions such as its Innovation Challenge. Through this event, middle and high school students and pharmacists-in-training are encouraged to collaborate to identify solutions to health-related issues in their communities such as obesity and eating disorders, depression, and drug abuse. Participants have fun while learning about and gaining hands-on experience in pharmacy, and they have the opportunity to win cash prizes as well as a travel grant to attend AACP’s 2019 Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Another aspect of the campaign is Pharm4Me Champions. AACP asks each of its 143 school members to designate at least one person, preferably a practicing pharmacist, to serve as a “champion” by participating in an educational campaign “that aims to inspire and foster the next generation of pharmacists,” according to the organization’s website. 

“Typically [these young people] don’t have pharmacists they can directly reach out to, so that’s a great opportunity to introduce [the profession] to students who don’t have a starting point,” Walker says. “That becomes their introduction to pharmacy as a career option, so I think that it becomes more attractive.”

At the University of North Carolina (UNC) Eshelman School of Pharmacy, direct outreach by students, faculty, staff, and alumni is providing positive reinforcement for underrepresented students interested in pharmacy. The school’s one-day Leadership, Excellence and Development (LEAD) program provides professional development opportunities for diverse groups — high schoolers, college students, and college graduates — to learn, engage, and network with current PharmD and PhD students, faculty, staff, researchers, and clinicians. They do so via discussion panels and other activities to learn more about the profession and how they can develop themselves as future health science leaders. Participants also gain assistance preparing for pharmacy school.

LEAD takes a dual approach by both employing a sweeping recruitment strategy and then exposing these individuals to a diverse group of pharmacy faculty and students. According to Carla White, associate dean of organizational diversity and inclusion, the school has developed an extensive database of key stakeholders at nationwide institutions, which it uses to disseminate information about the program. These individuals and entities then promote LEAD among students and other core groups. 

“The school aims for a diverse LEAD cohort, and if it isn’t diverse, that is an indicator that our reach isn’t what it needs to be,” explains White.

Although the program is targeted at diverse and underrepresented students, it is open to all. This approach is representative of UNC Eshelman’s general philosophy that diverse student recruitment is part of overall recruitment — not separate from it.   

For White, progress is about developing a strategy and recognizing where you are and how far you’ve come. “I’ve learned how to spot success and to rapidly adapt strategy when another approach is needed,” White says.

Recruitment programs such as LEAD are having an overall positive effect on the school’s enrollment, particularly among students of color. According to White, over the past five years, on average, 30 to 40 percent of UNC Eshelman’s total student body has participated in one or more of these initiatives. The numbers are even higher for those from different racial and ethnic groups. “Over the past five years, 70 to 90 percent of historically underrepresented students — African Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, and Native Americans — in each class participated in one or more program initiatives,” says White.

Access and Affordability
The University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) College of Pharmacy takes a different approach, concentrating on access and affordability to pique prospective students’ interest. Having three campuses across the state — in Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville — helps the college attract both demographically and socioeconomically diverse students, says Jennifer S. Williams, PharmD, associate dean for student affairs. 

According to the college’s website, it boasts a student body that is 30 to 35 percent underrepresented groups, and it has one of the largest percentages of African American students enrolled of any pharmacy school in the U.S., with the exception of HBCUs. Furthermore, Williams says entering classes are typically anywhere from 50 to 75 percent first-generation.

Jennifer S. Williams

“Having three campuses really provides great accessibility for students across the state of Tennessee so that they can be a part of our program but still be closer to home, if that’s what they want,” she says. “To me, [that is our] big draw: the accessibility to our program from many different areas, having the distance campuses. For students to be able to be closer to home, closer to families, I think is really important for them.”

But having several conveniently located campuses is not always enough in and of itself. Recognizing the barrier to pharmacy school created by its high price tag — particularly for underserved students — UTHSC College of Pharmacy implemented a regional tuition program. Under it, those who are out-of-state but reside within 200 miles of any of its campuses qualify for a 75 percent tuition differential reduction. Instead of paying the $41,960 annual rate, these individuals are charged only $26,952.

“The students end up paying just barely above in-state tuition,” Williams says. “We touch 14 states with the regional tuition program outside of Tennessee. That provides us with access to some of those bigger communities in cities within the surrounding states, [enabling us] to touch places that bring a lot of diversity from a racial and ethnic standpoint.”

Additionally, the UTHSC College of Pharmacy annually awards nearly $1.5 million in financial aid, and in 2018, more than 50 percent of students received a scholarship. Over $1 million of that amount is specifically earmarked for diversity scholarships for pharmacy students, which Williams says can be awarded to those who are new or returning. “Many of our students who qualify for that money are able to use that for the full four years they are in school,” she says. 

“Our dean, Marie Chisholm-Burns, cares a great deal about keeping education affordable for students,” Williams adds. “We are very interested in finding ways to increase accessibility to pharmacy education for students.”

Once drawn to UT School of Pharmacy for its accessibility and affordability, prospective students receive one-on-one guidance through the application and admissions process from an assigned admissions adviser. This aspect of recruitment is all about ensuring a welcoming on-campus experience for these newcomers, Williams says.

“It’s not just about making sure they know about our program and selling our program,” she explains, “but it really is trying to work with individual students to make sure they’re successful as they go through the [admissions] process.”

Walker also emphasizes the power of a welcoming campus. 

Outreach, access, and affordability are integral to recruiting more students of color to pharmacy school; however, she argues, so is creating a supportive environment and communicating that to students. 

“[They] want to know that when they come to these campuses and programs,” Walker says, “that they’re going to be supported both in and out of the classroom.”●

Alexandra Vollman is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our January/February 2019 issue.