WASHINGTON — Becoming a DVM is more expensive than ever. The average debt for a student graduating from veterinary school in 2000 was $63,046. By 2009, that amount had swelled to $130,552, according to data from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Fortunately, the federal Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program is being phased in throughout 2010, which should help some practicing veterinarians offset a healthy portion of their student loans.
The loan repayment program, authorized in 2003 with the passage of the National Veterinary Medical Services Act, is designed to help address shortages of veterinarians in critical areas of practice with a strong emphasis on food-supply medicine. Gary Sherman, national program leader for veterinary science at the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which is heading up the repayment program, tells DVM Newsmagazine that the agency is in the process of determining what areas are most in need of food-supply veterinarians. A 90-day request for applications will be issued after the shortage areas are determined, and the first batch of awards should be made this year.
"The program is meant to incentivize people to serve in hard-to-fill service areas ... which are often remote and rural areas with a significant food-animal population," Sherman says. "It will be a competitive process, where we'll be looking to match the needs of the shortage areas with the skills and experience of the applicants."
An interim final rule of the program indicates that award recipients can expect to receive as much as $25,000 per year in loan reimbursements for three or four years. The interim rule — based on funds appropriated through fiscal-year 2009 that totaled roughly $4.5 million — says about 40 practicing veterinarians will be selected for the program in its first year. However, Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, director of the AVMA's Governmental Relations Division, points out that Congress appropriated an additional $4.8 million for the program in fiscal 2010.
"Over the past three or four years, we've gotten close to $10 million in appropriations from Congress for this program," Lutschaunig says. "So, if you can make 40 awards out of $4.5 million, that number should double [to 80 awards] with the additional money from 2010."
While the program is open only to practicing and licensed DVMs, the hope is that it can attract current students toward large-animal medicine and veterinary medicine in general.
Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, says the number of applicants to veterinary schools last year dropped 1 percent from 2008. The rising cost of education, coupled with a diminishing applicant pool and modest incomes for graduating students, could further exacerbate the shortage of food-supply experts.
Readers interested in a chance at shedding up to $100,000 in student loan debt should keep their eyes on the program's Web site (www.nifa.usda.gov) for regular updates. Lutschaunig also recommends that prospective applicants stay in contact with their state veterinary medical associations, adding that the AVMA will be providing details on the application process as they become available.
Chris Sweeney is a freelance writer based in Chicago.