Veterinary professionals traveled from near and far to attend a summit titled “Fix the Debt: Our Future, Our Responsibility” held April 20-22 in Lansing, Michigan. The event, which was jointly hosted by Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine (MSU CVM), the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC), attracted around 180 participants.
Dealing with debt
Soaring student debt is a familiar topic for those involved in the veterinary profession. In 2013 the average student debt for graduating veterinary students exceeded $162,000, and some students reported debt as high as $300,000.
The veterinary school cost burden has increased in recent years, thanks in part to dramatic funding cuts at land-grant universities, many of which contain veterinary colleges. Greater costs are thus being passed on to students, but recent graduate salaries have not increased proportionately. As a result, concerns are arising that the ratio of student debt to starting salaries is unsustainable. The level of debt at which many graduates start their careers will have a major impact on the quality of their lives. Simply owning a home, supporting a family or even taking a vacation may be out of reach for some.
Steps to the summit
This problem is not new. In fact, the North American Veterinary Medical Consortium (NAVMEC) addressed the issue in 2008. The mission at that meeting was to identify ways to make the veterinary education system more cost-effective for both colleges of veterinary medicine and veterinary students without compromising the quality of the education and training.
A number of key recommendations came out of 2008’s consortium and were recently revisited at AAVMC’s annual conference in March 2015. The debt summit in Michigan was organized as a follow-up to last year’s conference and carried a goal of bringing all stakeholders within the profession together to discuss the problem, including educators, students, recent graduates, employers and veterinary associations.
The summit was facilitated by Kenneth Andrews, PhD, who challenged attendees to produce tangible, actionable solutions. He emphasized the need to come out of the meeting with a plan of action and not just a list of observations and complaints.
Following Andrews’ charge, a few key speakers shared their perspectives on the debt situation, including recent graduates, who were perhaps best positioned to provide poignant illustrations of how stifling and debilitating student debt has become. These speeches were followed by breakout sessions in which attendees were divided into four different groups: educators/colleges, employers of veterinarians, associations/organizations and students/recent graduates.
The closed-door sessions were built around “solution concepts” that had been identified at prior meetings in preparation for the larger summit. The four main groups were broken into smaller focus teams with a goal of building on the concepts and determining how they could be quickly implemented for maximum impact at multiple locations. After the sessions, everyone gathered back together so each group could deliver a summary of its conclusions and recommendations.
Impactful and actionable
The following day, Andrews once again addressed the four groups and tasked them with winnowing their lists to select the most impactful and actionable ideas. According to a release from the AVMA, some of the possible solutions, listed by group, are as follows:
Implement a five- or six-year DVM program.
Encourage the creation of national partnerships and campaigns to raise scholarship funds.
Employers of veterinarians
Improve new employee onboarding.
Promote a culture of preventative care.
Encourage practice ownership.
Develop a career guidebook for pre-veterinary students.
Increase advocacy efforts addressing student debt.
Engage with deans, peers and future students regarding student debt and financial literacy.
Educate pre-veterinary students about the student debt issue and what’s being done.
The (DIR)ty truth
Michael Dicks, PhD, director of the AVMA Economics Division, closed the summit with a presentation on veterinarians’ debt-to-income ratio (DIR), which is seen as one of the key means of gauging the financial health of recent graduates. The DIR, which is currently 2:1, has risen from 1.2:1 in just 15 years, he said.
Dicks explained that this ratio is not sustainable but believes that a DIR under 1.4:1 would be viable. He demonstrated that if a number of steps were taken, such as eliminating interest on student loans while students are in veterinary school and decreasing the cost of school expenditures by 10 percent, the DIR could get close to 1.38:1.
Dicks believes the veterinary field has the ability to make such changes but stressed that everyone in the profession needs to take ownership in the problem and contribute to the strategies put forth at the summit. He also emphasized the fact that it’s not just one change that will make the difference. A sustainable solution will require a collection of small and not-so-small tweaks to the system.
The cost of school has become so exorbitant that the rate of applicants to available positions is currently 2.1:1. With the opening of a number of new schools, it may soon reach 1:1—a far cry from just 20 years ago when the acceptance rate at many schools was 6:1. Such a ratio is not healthy for a profession needing to attract the best and brightest talent.
Less school, less debt
The summit made it clear that there is no single quick fix, but the implementation of a number of strategies could help. Yet the question remains: Will they (or can they) help enough?
On a personal note, I graduated from Colorado State University with a joint DVM-MBA degree in 1994. My thesis dealt with the critical issue of low salaries within the profession; sadly, we have made little progress on this front over the past 20 years, and excessive student debt is only adding insult to injury.
One positive, however, is that for perhaps the first time ever, the profession is joining together to tackle this problem. Many good ideas were put forth at the summit, but in my opinion, the most important and potentially powerful idea is to create a five-year veterinary program. The curriculum would require two years of pre-veterinary coursework followed by three years of veterinary school.
Think about it this way: If the veterinary curriculum were a business that had to produce profitable students, this change would take place immediately to avoid going out of business. A five-year veterinary program obviously saves students money when it comes to tuition and school fees and carries the added benefit of getting them in workforce sooner.
The move to make change has started, and it will require every veterinary stakeholder to do his or her part. While it’s good to be proud of our heritage as veterinarians, it’s detrimental to resist necessary change for the sake of tradition. It’s time to take pride in how we respond to the crisis.