All students at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, School of Medicine responded to a 65-item questionnaire about their perceptions of changes facing medicine, the future of family practice, and career choices. Three different orientations toward family practice were identified--"stayers," "defectors," and "potential defectors." Students who had abandoned their original preference for family medicine (defectors) were compared with students who had maintained an interest in family medicine (stayers). Defectors anticipated a diminishing clinical role for future family practitioners, expressed doubt about the financial viability of smaller community based family practices, and explicitly linked concerns about their anticipated debt load to their changes in career preferences. This study also identified a subgroup of "potential defector" students (within the stayer cohort) who maintained an interest in family practice but evidenced concerns similar to the defector students. Implications of these findings for the future supply of primary care physicians for rural and traditionally underserved communities are discussed.