For the past two decades, studies, reports, columns and presentations have all raised the same discouraging topic over and
over again: the impact of student debt on the solvency and security of individual veterinarians and on the stability and financial
health of our profession. It's a topic that's not likely to go away.
The cost of a veterinary education has always been high in proportion to anticipated income. Today indebtedness of $150,000
to $250,000 is not uncommon. Now imagine the debt load faced by a husband-wife veterinary couple! Debt payments often exceed
mortgage payments that would buy a heck of a nice home.
Compound that debt load with the compensation reality for associate veterinarians. They often receive similar or less pay
than individuals with a four-year bachelor's degree. And as more and more veterinarians want to become practice owners, their
amount of debt—even 10 to 15 years after graduation—makes it difficult to take the step from associate to owner.
Unless we are willing to reinvent our educational models, it's unlikely that educational costs associated with veterinary
medicine will decline. The fact that our veterinary programs are at capacity, and will only get worse, makes salary increases
even less likely.
Where do we go from here?
The reality is that anyone entering the profession should expect a high debt load with little chance of a proportionally higher
salary. As the rappers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis say, "If I'd done it for the money, I would have been a [fill in the blank]."
Few veterinarians, if any, entered the profession anticipating they would get rich. But historically, a veterinary degree
and a couple years' experience assured us of an upper-middle-class income and the ability to provide for our families while
developing a degree of financial security.
Though some creative programs have been established to help with veterinary student debt, there is nothing that can be done
after the fact to reduce the cost of education once it has been incurred. Lowering the burden from the outset will necessitate
some radical changes in the veterinary educational process: Eliminating a four-year pre-professional curriculum. Offering
a year-round curriculum to reduce the number of years a student has to spend in school. Looking at how other countries have
significantly reduced pre-professional years from three years to two. We might even make it easier for students to proceed
at their own pace, perhaps allowing them to take a year off to earn money for educational expenses.
Regardless of the educational system, veterinarians have to change. We must commit to becoming more aware of business and
financial issues. There should be mandatory CE in financial matters, just as there is in controlled drug laws, USDA/APHIS
work and other areas of the profession. I don't propose that veterinarians become certified financial planners, but they must
learn the basics of financial management and wealth accumulation. Most important, they must learn to reduce or avoid future