New veterinary schools mean more opportunities, more veterinarians

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Farm Forum

It’s a great time here at SDSU. Students have returned to campus for the fall, bringing their energy and eagerness to learn. Likewise, at vet schools around the country, vet students are returning to their pharmacology lectures and surgery labs.

This is an interesting fall for the veterinary educational world. Two new veterinary schools are opening their doors – at universities I would wager you have not heard of before. Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee and Midwestern University in Arizona are the 29th and 30th institutions to join the list of US veterinary schools.

Lincoln and Midwestern are AVMA-accredited vet schools, just like the ones at places like Iowa State and the University of Minnesota. But that’s where most of the similarities end.

These newest vet colleges are small private schools. Both have total school enrollments around 4,000. Lincoln is a liberal arts school in the Cumberland Gap. Midwestern is an osteopathic school that has morphed into a health professions niche in suburban Phoenix.

These schools have a different model than their traditional land-grant counterparts. These vet schools won’t have veterinary teaching hospitals. Instead, fourth-year vet students will learn their clinical skills at cooperating veterinary clinics in the region. This is more of an economic – rather than educational – tactic. Veterinary teaching hospitals are very expensive for universities to run.

What is driving the opening of these new schools? I venture the reason is money. Private schools don’t make huge investments in surgery labs and faculty unless it makes economic sense for them. Annually, each US vet school has upwards of a thousand students clamoring for roughly 100 seats in an entering class. This tremendous demand for veterinary school means that schools can pretty much set their price. For these new schools, $40,000 to $50,000 is the cost for a year’s tuition alone – a price actually in line with out-of-state tuition at other vet schools.

The arrival of these new schools on the veterinary scene has induced much hand-wringing in our profession. From an economic standpoint, can society absorb the additional 200 veterinarians these schools will produce every year? Is there only a set dollar amount that all pet owners, livestock owners, companies, or government agencies spend on veterinarians every year? If so, an individual vet’s income will go down if there are more vets practicing, the theory goes. This would make it harder yet for vets to pay off their high student loan balances.

On the other hand, from the viewpoint of an Upper Midwest pre-veterinary advisor, more openings in vet schools means more chances for our students to go to vet school. In my opinion, this is good for our students and good for the profession. Veterinary medicine needs more students like the ones that come through SDSU. They are well-grounded, have great work ethic, and have a common-sense viewpoint of the role of animals in our society.

But the economic realities faced by these students worries me somewhat. We try to help all of our students understand the economics of veterinary school, especially because most of them eventually attending vet school will end up paying out-of-state tuition. We know that for a certain number of really good students, the costs of a veterinary education just don’t match up to their perceived future benefits.

It’s a pipe dream to think costs of a veterinary education will go down. The future of a vibrant veterinary profession therefore lies on the other side of the economic equation. Can veterinarians demonstrate their skills in new ways that help animals and people? I say yes. The broad, multi-species, problem-solving nature of veterinary education means veterinarians are well-positioned to help society tackle emerging human diseases and the challenges of feeding a growing world.

Veterinary medicine is, and always will be, an incredibly rewarding and important profession. We do, however, need to understand the effect that new schools and rising tuition rates have on the type of young person entering the profession. We are lucky that our former students starting vet school this fall are the cream of the crop. We need to make sure that the profession remains accessible to them, not just to those with the luxury of parents who can pay their tuition bill.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at russell.daly@sdstate.edu or at 605-688-5171.