Solving the veterinary student debt issue

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That’s a ratio important to veterinary medicine. It doesn’t refer to a drug dosage or a disease prevalence, though. It’s the ratio of the average veterinary school graduate’s student debt to their starting salary.

If you’re like me, you might not know whether 2:1 is a desirable figure or not. Turns out it’s not. Some experts state this number should be 1:4 for professions such as medicine, dentistry, or veterinary medicine. For undergrads, a 1:1 ratio is more desirable. Put in practical terms, this means that, compared to new doctors and dentists, veterinary students have high educational costs compared to their earning ability. Med school might cost as much or more than vet school, but doctors have greater incomes to service that debt.

This ratio — and the reasons it’s so high for veterinarians — was the focus of a work session I attended in Michigan last month. This inherent disadvantage for veterinary students is sparking real concern. Calling it a crisis is not an exaggeration. The cost barriers to entering the veterinary profession mean that young people are increasingly taking a critical look at the economics of veterinary education, looking toward other, more cost-effective pursuits instead. New veterinary graduates gravitate toward higher-paying positions that may not reflect their true passions. Young veterinarians are delaying the milestones of their non-veterinary classmates: buying a house or starting a family. It’s tougher for them to buy into a practice, which directly affects their stability in our communities.

By last measure, the average veterinary student graduates with $156,583 in student loans. The vast bulk of that is vet school tuition. Vet schools are expensive places to run. They have teaching hospitals that must employ high-dollar specialists and research programs that need equipment and faculty to run. As with higher education in general, vet schools face declining dollar support from state legislatures, who figure the cost can be shifted to the students.

At the Michigan meeting we broke into groups to discuss solutions to these problems. I joined the “educators” group and brought the perspective of a university without a vet school but with a heavy role in preparing students to enter one. Most of the ideas thrown out by the vet school administrators left me disappointed. They were quick to seize upon relatively easy (but ineffectual) ideas to implement: teaching vet students more financial literacy, or bumping up scholarships. Bold ideas such as shortening veterinary school to 3 years or sharing faculty among vet schools — actions that would actually reduce the cost of veterinary education – were down on their list. They would require veterinary schools to cut faculty and departments. Clearly there was no appetite for that among the schools.

Maybe I’m being tough on the vet schools. After all, students play a role in this too. Some take out the maximum loan with no regard to what they actually need to get by. Most could become more financially savvy. Employers could do a better job of maximizing new vets’ incomes: are veterinary practices’ business strategies robust enough to support the income growth of an associate vet?

But in the end, it’s the vet schools that set the tuition and prepare our students for success in the profession. They need to do better on both ends. Too many of our SDSU students find much of the first year of vet school redundant to courses they took in undergrad. Too many vet students (not necessarily our SDSU grads) graduate feeling unprepared for success in practice, despite having paid top dollar for their education. I’m hopeful that the time spent in Michigan gave these opportunity to consider some bold steps forward.

What I’ve written above probably seems pretty gloomy to a kid wanting to become a vet. But there is still plenty that is vibrant and rewarding about the veterinary profession — especially in this part of the country. Yes, some of our South Dakota vet school graduates have pretty hefty loan balances. But they’re making the payments. They navigated vet school well and came out ready to work. They’re fortunate to be practicing where people place high value on veterinary services. It’s time the vet schools step up and make it easier for them.

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.