The first Rocky Vista class is 10 students larger than the 125 incoming first-year med students at the University of Utah, 300 miles to the northeast in Salt Lake City.
The Rocky Vista students, of which half are from Utah, will begin their four-year medical education later this month at the 32-acres Ivins campus.
Their two-story, 104,000 square-foot school building includes two, 200-seat lecture halls, 36 study rooms, a simulation center, standardized patient rooms and a 9,000 square-foot library. The campus also has two student housing buildings.
Utah health officials hope the new medical school will alleviate a physician shortage now plaguing the state. And though concerns about for-profit medical education persist in the industry, experts who have worked with students from Rocky Vista's first location opened in 2008 in Parker, Colo., said the concerns are unfounded.
"We really measure the student, not the school that they came from," said Shane Robinson, administrative director of graduate medical education at Idaho's Bingham Memorial Hospital. Students must obtain the same certifications "whether the school is for-profit or not, [so] you're comparing apples to apples, and the folks that join us are right on par, if not a hair better, than the national average."
More options • The U. has been training medical students for over 100 years, but Rocky Vista officials felt Utah needed more medical training opportunities to meet the state's needs.
There is a lack of health care access in Utah, particularly in rural and southern portions of the state, said Tom Told, dean and chief academic officer of Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine.
With 207.5 physicians per 100,000 population, the Beehive State ranks 43rd in the nation, according to 2015 Association of American Medical Colleges data.
Top-notch medical students are graduating from the U., but experts say there simply aren't enough. This is particularly problematic because research shows that individuals tend to stay in the state where they are trained.
"As our state's population continues to grow, the need for physicians continues to grow [with it]," Gov. Gary Herbert said Friday via video message. "And starting today, more Utah students will be able to stay in their home state while pursuing their medical education."
Told, who completed his undergraduate studies at Brigham Young University, said Friday he was not accepted into the U.'s medical school and was forced to leave the state in the 1970s to study.
He did not return to practice medicine in Utah after graduating medical school. "Where students train makes a big difference," Told said.
It became clear that this was still a problem, Told said, when he joined Rocky Vista in 2009, and realized how many Utah students came to study at the Colorado campus, the first for-profit medical school to open in the country.
So officials began to formulate a plan to bring a school to those students, one focused on osteopathic medicine, which promotes the body's own ability to heal.
One such student is Carson Ence, who went to Dixie State University as an undergraduate. Ence, now 27, got early acceptance to the Colorado campus and had heard great things about it from a family member.
Two years into the four-year program, Ence said he couldn't be happier with his choice.
"They do a pretty good job of listening to the voice of the students," he said.
Well prepared • When the day to apply for residency comes for students like Ence, they should be ready, said Stephen Shannon, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine.
"Rocky Vista has had a very strong history of success in terms of graduation rates" and residency placement, Shannon said. The Utah location "will more or less reflect closely the same curriculum being provided as the Colorado campus and so we'd expect ... [it] will have a similar record."
The Colorado site has a graduation rate of 90 percent, said Julie Rosenthal, Rocky Vista University's executive director of enrollment management. That number is lower than the U., which had an overall graduation rate of 96 percent in 2017, said Kathy Wilets, U. spokeswoman.
However, the residency placement rate at Rocky Vista's Colorado campus is slightly higher than the U.'s 100 percent, compared to 98.2 percent, according to information provided by both schools.
National rankings paint a more nuanced picture for the osteopathic medical school's Colorado location.
U.S. News & World Report in March released its 2018 rankings of best graduate schools from medicine to business to law did not list the school because it fell in the bottom quarter of the publication's numeric rankings.
The U.'s med school, on the other hand, was among U.S. News & World Report's top 50 institutions in the country, for both research and primary care.
Despite this, about 150 students from the Colorado campus in 2016 landed residencies at 134 institutions across the country. None of those residencies were in Utah, but officials with other institutions report good outcomes from Rocky Vista University students.
Tuition at Rocky Vista is more than $53,000 per year, compared to more than $37,000 to attend the U.'s medical school. Med students at the U. pay more than $71,000 each year if they are not from Utah, Wilets said.
Lower tuition "was one of the biggest attractions to the U ... which I would have loved," Ence said. Rocky Vista, he said, "is more money than I wanted to pay but it's not that bad."
For-profit? • When Rocky Vista accepted its initial class of students in 2008, it became the first for-profit medical school in the country. Now there are four, Shannon said.
Some in the medical industry, such as Kieran Walsh, clinical director of BMJ Learning in the United Kingdom, have publicly noted their belief that medical education "ideally" should not be provided by profit-making entities though there "undoubtedly" are some advantages.
"Is it to produce health care professionals that a population needs, or to deliver a profit or both?" Walsh wrote in a 2015 Annals of Medical and Health Sciences Research article. "If it is both, which purpose should take precedence in the event of the conflict between the two profit or education?"
But Shannon said that for-profit medical schools in the U.S. are much different than those overseas. All osteopathic medical schools are held to the same rigorous standards and accreditation requirements as nonprofits, he added.
"The educational product should be similar or the same [as a nonprofit school] because of the accreditation standards," he said.
Some are concerned over whether educational quality will suffer as for-profit institutions cater to the needs of their investors. But according to a 2013 article in Health Services Insights, that is not the case with Rocky Vista. Their students' test scores are high, on average, the article states.
The school's for-profit status certainly isn't going to stop health care systems in Utah from considering its students for residency programs.
Officials with the U., Intermountain Healthcare and St. Mark's Hospital say they all will consider Rocky Vista students in search of the best applicants for their openings. Salt Lake Regional Medical Center has an agreement with RVU to allow students "to rotate with one of our physicians," according to a center official.
But Scott Wyatt, Southern Utah University president, said the Ivins school will not just produce good doctors. It will produce and awaken the dreams of southern Utah's youth.
"This medical school will stand as a monument of possibilities, a place of dreams that just having this located here is a constant reminder to the youth of southern Utah that they can actually go to medical school," Wyatt said. "More people ... will stretch into this difficult profession."