Bound by debt: Veterinarians struggle with student loans in a tepid economy

Years after graduating, this Utah veterinarian is still in the grips of his student loan burden. But hope is on the horizon as he finally closes in on his dream of owning a practice.
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Sep 01, 2012


Years after graduating, Utah veterinarian David Benson, DVM, still carries the burden of student loans.
David Benson, DVM, hasn't taken a vacation with his family for five years. Like most veterinarians, he's spent his career so far juggling a hectic appointment schedule and difficult clients, and he's also helped his employers manage the practice staff and run the business with an eye toward eventually becoming a practice owner himself. That alone is enough to take a toll on the average individual. But Benson's challenges are made heavier by the presence of a sizeable chunk of student debt. "And it's not just veterinary school debt," he says. "When you factor in other living expenses and personal debt, it all adds up."

Since graduating in 1995, Benson has struggled to make ends meet and provide for his family. When he entered the job market, he knew the salary range he would need in order to make consistent payments on his loan, but he was also well aware that his starting salary would make it nearly impossible to purchase a home. "I was paid fairly well based on average salaries at the time, and I knew it would suffice while we were renting," he says. "But still, the debt was a lot to manage."

Benson is far from alone. The burden of managing student loan debt is becoming more and more commonplace in the veterinary profession these days, particularly with the rising cost of higher education. And the $53,000 Benson accrued during his education, which was fairly typical of veterinary student debt in the mid-90s, is a fraction of what many veterinary school graduates leave school with now. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), mean educational debt rose 6.5 percent from 2010 to 2011, coming in at a whopping $142,613. In the meantime, average full-time salaries for new graduates dropped 1.3 percent.

When he left school, Benson decided initially on a 10-year loan repayment schedule. But five years later, when he and his family were ready to purchase a home, they found they could no longer afford the high monthly payment. So he refinanced, extending his loan to a 20-year schedule, which dropped the monthly payments but also substantially compounded the long-term interest he would pay on the loan. And although his salary increased gradually over the years, it wasn't enough to offer much relief from his debt burden.

And Benson's debt has affected his career along with his personal finances. "Paying back my student loan affected my ability to purchase a practice," he says. "It delayed that process."