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Veterinary schools turn to tuition hikes to close budget gaps

After years of state cuts, many universities left with fewer funding choices
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Jul 01, 2010

National report — The economy may be starting to bounce back, but higher education — which bore heavy cuts from state governments over the last several years — still is feeling the sting of the recession.

Millions in state funding have been cut over the last several years, and veterinary colleges have tried to keep the burden of those cuts from falling on the backs of students, choosing instead to leave positions open and make program cuts, educators say.

But veterinary schools are running out of options and now have no choice but to increase tuition to close ever-widening funding gaps.

State monies for 27 veterinary schools have been cut by about $50 million over the last two years — a figure University of California-Davis (UC-Davis) Dean Bennie Osburn points out could fund two veterinary colleges. More cuts could come in the next year or so as federal stimulus dollars dry up, and some schools are anticipating another 20 percent in cuts next year.

Veterinary schools have trimmed more than 400 staff positions. Another 150 veterinary faculty jobs vanished from the 3,595 positions across the country. Programs at some of the universities have been casualties of cut backs too, including those in animal behavior, cardiology, ophthalmology and more, he says.

UC-Davis relies on state funding for about one third of its budget and has endured $5 million in cuts over the last three years. The university is planning a tuition increase of about 12 percent — from $27,045 to $30,246 — for the 2010-2011 school year.

And UC-Davis is not alone. The University of Tennessee (UT) was dealt "huge cuts" by state lawmakers last year, says James P. Thompson, dean of the UT's veterinary college. Over the last three years, the school lost $2.7 million in state funding — $2.2 million of that being doled out last year alone, which forced the school to raise in-state tuition rates by 20 percent.

Out-of-state tuition was not increased, because it was already among the eighth highest among the nation's veterinary schools after several years of tuition increases of up to 15 percent. But in spite of last year's steep increase, Thompson says another hike — this time only 5 percent — is likely this year for in- and out-of-state students.

"I really worry about the impact of tuition and the debt burden it's putting on our students," says Thompson.

Reports from the American Veterinary Medical Association showed a student debt increase of almost 9 percent in 2009, with the average student owing about $130,000 upon graduation.

"I recognize that in order to have a quality education, you have to have some income flow to pay the teachers. But I worry about it greatly," Thompson says. "I'm looking forward to a brighter day when there's more money at the legislature's hand to give to veterinary medicine."

But for students footing the bill of today's veterinary education, it might be difficult to see a silver lining. Tennessee and UC-Davis' tuition increases pale in comparison to the 30 percent tuition hike approved for non-residents by the board of curators at the University of Missouri-Columbia (MU) College of Veterinary Medicine.

In-state tuition, currently at $17,780, will not change — a deal made by the university with state lawmakers if they promised to keep budget cuts modest — but out-of-state students will see tuition increase from last year's $33,496 to $43,496 for 2010-2011.

"Ten-thousand dollars is a hard pill to swallow. But amortized over four years, it's not so bad," says Dr. Robert Youngquist, associate dean of academic affairs at MU.

Out-of-state students have the option to apply for in-state status much earlier than other states allow — after only one year — Youngquist notes, meaning they can apply for in-state tuition rates by their second year and save nearly a third over out-of-state costs.

"There's no good way to do it," he adds, saying the schools have few options once states cut their contributions to higher education.

Other schools are looking at tuition increases, too, like Louisiana State University's School of Veterinary Medicine, which is considering a 5 percent to 10 percent increase next year. Louisiana lawmakers haven't finished budget talks yet, so rates are still up in the air for the school, says LSU spokeswoman Ginger Guttner.

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, which decreased its projected deficit for next year from $5 million to $1 million, is planning a 4.5 percent increase of in-state tuition to $27,700 and a 6.5 percent increase of out-of-state tuition to $41,700.

Several groups, like the North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium, are working to find new solutions to help ease the financial burden on students, but in the meantime, officials say, costs on students have been climbing each year.

But Thompson says he doesn't think that will be the case forever, espeically with public concern about food safety on the rise.

"I'm an optimist. At some point in time, the public will say we need to invest more … to ensure we have the providers out there to care for these animals and the importance they have for us," he says.