Aspiring veterinarians face funding shortfall in Arkansas
Here’s the long and short of it: Arkansas needs young, new veterinarians, but because of a shortfall in funding for its Health Education Grants, it just got a lot harder for aspiring veterinarians in a state with no veterinary college to obtain their doctor of veterinary medicine degree. The incoming class, which applied for and was awarded grants to offset the cost of out-of-state education, have now been told there is no guarantee for four years of financial support.
A short-term solution
The Arkansas Health Education Grants are designed to pay the difference between in- and out-of-state tuition for Arkansas students who attend schools of dentistry, optometry, osteopathic medicine, podiatric medicine and veterinary medicine in other states. The grants traditionally allow 12 veterinary students a year to attend either Louisiana State University, the University of Missouri, Tuskegee University or Oklahoma State University to obtain their DVM at in-state costs.
But a premature depletion of the program’s funds has left the state unable to support the veterinary grants. In 2008, the state Legislature moved $20 million from the program’s reserves to offset lottery revenue shortcomings, exhausting the fund much earlier than expected. “Instead of running out in 2017, it runs out now,” says Shane Broadway, interim director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. Higher education officials requested in 2011 and 2013 that the Legislature act to prevent downsizing the grant program, but to little avail.
Although higher ed officials knew the program would not be fully funded this year, they decided to go ahead with the application process anyway. “Those slots are ours whether we have the money for them or not,” Broadway says.
Louisiana State accepts nine veterinary health grant students; Missouri, Tuskegee and Oklahoma State accept one each. This year’s application included a disclosure that the grants were subject to change. “That was the difficultly in trying to explain that to students and parents,” Broadway says.
In the meantime, Gov. Mike Beebe has requested that the Arkansas Legislature approve moving $1.1 million from the state’s rainy day fund to the health grant program. If approved, which is expected, this would guarantee one year of financial assistance for the dozen students set to begin programs this fall. “It will be one-time money,” Broadway says. “It’s not ongoing revenue.”
So, for example, while grant students will pay in-state tuition and fees of approximately $21,500 at Louisiana State for the first year, they will be responsible for $48,350 a year without further assistance from the program.
A long-term problem
Presently, the University of Arkansas has no plans for a veterinary college. “Because of the large costs associated with starting a full-fledged veterinary school, the university does not currently have plans to do so; however, faculty members and administrators in our agriculture programs have and will continue to explore ways in which the university can help address this problem,” says university Director of Communications Ben Beaumont.
Veterinary medicine is important—even crucial—to Arkansas. The state is a top poultry producer. According to state veterinarian George Pat Badley, DVM, Arkansas produced approximately 1.72 million food animals in 2011. Badley says the state has a shortage of food animal veterinarians in rural areas—specifically for beef cattle, dairy cattle, swine and small ruminants—and that there are only 14 private practice veterinarians in Arkansas dedicated to food animal medicine. He expects that number to continue to decrease, specifically in Arkansas’ central counties—Lonoke, Prairie, Monroe, Arkansas and Phillips. “The production statistics for 2011 [in those counties] equate to approximately 30,200 food animals per practicing veterinarian,” Badley wrote on a recent federal loan repayment program application.
Broadway acknowledges that the deterioration of the Arkansas Health Education Grants program feeds into this concern. “It’s tremendous in terms of our need because of our agricultural background and our current need in the state,” he says. “Current veterinarians, a lot of them are close to retirement. There is a need and a void—especially in rural areas of the state.”
According to the Department of Higher Education, about a third of students who receive their DVM out of state return to Arkansas to practice. From 2008 to 2011 there were 49 graduates—18 have Arkansas licenses. While Badley says more could be done to recruit veterinarians to the state, the health grant funding for students to attend veterinary school out of state is a needed incentive.
Broadway says Arkansas legislators understand the state’s need for veterinarians in food animal medicine—in fact, legislative members are advocating for more slots at Mississippi State for Arkansas students because of its large animal medicine program. Time will tell if that translates into votes to restore funding for the grants.
According to the governor’s office, Beebe hopes the Legislature will find a way to fund the grants fully for those incoming students in February when the next fiscal session begins. “The bigger question is long term,” Broadway says. “It’s going to depend on the state of the economy and the state’s other obligations. At least it will be part of the discussion.”