What $300,000 in student debt does to the vet school dream

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What $300,000 in student debt does to the vet school dream

This first-year veterinary student refuses to lose hope—but he doesn’t see the solution either.
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May 12, 2017

Shutterstock.comI am an incoming first-year veterinary student. Currently three years out of college, I spent my childhood listening to my grandfather’s stories about his time as a veterinarian in France, and I’ve always known I wanted to follow the same path he walked, as well as my great-grandfather before him.

The past seven years of my life, first obtaining a degree in biology and chemistry, then working at Pender Veterinary Centre as a veterinary nurse, have only served to confirm and further fuel my passion for this field. So you can imagine how ecstatic I was when I opened a letter beginning with “Congratulations, you have been accepted into our College of Veterinary Medicine.” Hands trembling, I could barely speak as I turned and hugged my mom and dad. Finally, after all of these years of dedication and hard work, I could take the next step to fulfilling my dream. I could start down the path to becoming a veterinarian.

But once my initial elation started subsiding, reality began to creep in: how much would it actually cost to pursue my dream? I already knew it would be expensive and student loan debt was the No. 1 crisis facing the veterinary community at this moment. But I didn’t realize just how bad it was until I went through the numbers myself.

Here are the cold hard numbers of my reality: The university I will attend requires its out-of-state students to pay out-of-state tuition for all four years, at roughly $60,000 per year. I will also have to cover living expenses such as rent, utilities and groceries, as well as textbooks and other materials, estimated at $12,000 to $15,000 a year. With federal loans covering the first part of each year’s loan at 6 percent interest and the rest covered by private student loans at a variable rate of 8.5 to 10 percent, I should graduate from veterinary school with a total debt of around $300,000—not to mention the $46,000 of interest that will accumulate while I’m in school. In other words, my total debt will grow by more than 15 percent before I even earn my veterinary degree and begin practicing.

Since I knew I would be paying for veterinary school myself, I have been saving while working these past few years, to the tune of just over $20,000. However, after calculating my expected costs, I realized that would cover just a little more than one year of living expenses and school materials without touching tuition. As you can imagine, this is where the magnitude of my predicament began to sink in.

What terrifies me is that I am not alone. A large number of veterinary students are facing the same dilemma, with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reporting that more than 20 percent of 2016 graduates have at least $200,000 of debt before they enter the job market. And yet, after several months of searching, I have yet to find a comprehensive system designed to help future veterinarians emerge from under this mountain of debt.

Yes, there are scholarships and some debt relief programs, but these are, by definition, exclusive. These programs leave a not-insignificant number of veterinary graduates saddled with crushing debt they cannot hope to pay back with their expected salaries. In my scenario, without any debt relief, even if I were to pay $33,000 every year toward my student loan debt, I would still be paying it back for the next 20 years.

That means I will give up a huge portion of my post-tax salary until my 50th birthday, precluding any real opportunity to save for retirement or my future children’s education (to prevent them from landing in the same predicament). Simply put, this doesn’t seem like any way to live life, especially considering the energy and time it takes to obtain a veterinary degree, let alone practice in the field.

In writing this, I hope to encourage incoming and prospective students to formulate a plan for how they’ll tackle this debt issue before entering veterinary school. I’m concerned that the financial burden of veterinary school may soon drive the best and brightest students to follow a different, more financially feasible path—if it’s not already.

I find this heartbreaking. Why? Because the veterinary field as a whole will suffer, and the rising debt increasingly punish those who have put their hearts and souls into following their dreams regardless of the cost. I have a personal stake in this, as I happen to be one of those foolish people choosing to pursue my passion rather than do what makes financial sense.

I have always wanted nothing more than to become a veterinarian and someday open my own practice. My life plan has always been based squarely on reaching this goal. Unfortunately, the numbers do not lie, and I refuse to live the rest of my life under crushing debt. This is not, however, to say that I will simply roll over and admit defeat.

I have always been told that I’m stubborn, usually too much for my own good, and I simply will not allow this financial obstacle to prevent me from reaching my goals. I have spent the past several months researching my options and looking for a solution—to little avail—but if anyone reading this commentary has any wisdom that they can impart to help make my dreams a reality, I guarantee I will listen with an open mind and eager heart.

Although I may be just one person standing against this growing pandemic of debt, I will do everything I can to disseminate what I learn along the way to others in the same situation. My hope is that together we can stop this disease plaguing veterinary medicine.

Justin Sahs is a veterinary nurse at Pender Veterinary Centre in Fairfax, Virginia. He has recently been admitted to the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine and is set to begin classes in August.

An option to $300K of debt: the frugal student

Justin, please feel free to contact me - I would love to talk with you about ways to graduate with little debt! Many in our profession are rightly looking at big picture items like tuition, etc. That is important for the profession, but not helpful for you. :-) The reason is the entire process can seem overwhelming, and give a false sense to incoming graduates that they have no options but to amass this massive nightmare of debt!

There is a plan that will work. The problem is that it not easy or popular at this time. There are several 'big picture' principals to keep in mind. How that looks in detail, I can elaborate upon.
Principal one: Steven Covey, said in his book "7 habits of highly effective people": "Begin with the end in mind" and "highly effective people are proactive, they happen to things".
Principal #2 Glenn Shepard (management consultant to Fortune 50 & small businesses)says: "You have to choose between the size if your ego and the size of your wallet; the bigger one is, then the smaller the other will be!"
Principal #3: You also want to play offense and defense with money. :-)

So how does that look as an undergraduate and veterinary student?

Defense:
Did you know according to a LendEDU poll, 30% of college students with loans, use the loan money for a spring break trip? If you are borrowing money, you should not take a vacation! :-)

Don't you deserve a break from studying by going out for your Cappuccino?! Of course you do! Don't you deserve a break today? Get up and get away to McDonalds... Or the $6 dollar footlong at at Subway - I can get 3 meals out of it! :-)
You deserve (ego) //your wallet will be smaller.:-)

Or ... we go out to get some lunchthings from the refrigerator: bologna, cheese and bread I had bought and make my own sandwich. For breakfast, I make an egg at home - today price of a dozen eggs: $0.89/ doz = $0.08 for breakfast.
Small ego of making it myself and cleaning the kitchen// bigger wallet

You and your classmates 'job' should be help the vet school cafeteria go broke because no student eats there! As an example, when I was in school in the 80's, the cafeteria could not stay in business (tried 3 times) because too many of the students of all grades were brown bagging. Do not let administration guilt or shame you into eating there. :-)

Remember your goal: grad with little debt. Big picture: eating out= big ego// small wallet. Brown bagging and fixing meals in apartment = small ego//big wallet (savings). I can share more details if folks are interested.

Always have a roommate in college to split expenses. Not all roommates were perfect, but I was not either.:-)
[ego] small// bigger wallet

Be willing to buy used books, asked upperclassman which books are essential, and which are not to hang onto. Ask for books for Christmas and birthday gift from family.
Ego [own books - keeping] small // wallet big

Do you 'need' a car? If yes to car, what kind of car? - feul effecient or muscle car, car payment? How do you get to class? You could walk or ride your bicycle? No matter the distance! In this plan walking the 3/4 mile to and from an apartment with my non veterinary roommates to the veterinary college.
Ego of convenience of not driving to class (small)// wallet larger
Big picture: car for college car = big ego//no savings

Credit card = big ego// no wallet. Especially in school, if you can't afford it now, you won't be able to afford it later. Credit cards give too easy sense of 'I'll pay it later'. Recipe for disaster. Only use a checkbook, and if you don't have money in checkbook, then do not get.

Prepare a budget and stick to it... no matter if some of classmates are going out to eat, or to a bar to celebrate end of week! Celebrating end of week by eating out = big ego// small wallet.

And this may seem terrible for a fellow DVM to say to a veterinary student: Do not get a pet of any sort while in school!
Pets are expensive! They break your budget when you least expect it! Besides you can enjoy your classmate's dog or cat. Not everone will listen to this wisdom. :-)
Having pet= big ego// small wallet

Offense

What jobs are you willing to apply for? and when? 3rd shift? Weekends and nights? If possible, I would defer entrance one year, and work 2 or 3 full time jobs and stash away all the money, no vacations, no eating out, no movies, etc.
Are you unwilling to take certain jobs because may interfere with social life? Working that type of job does not look good? Ego of doing what I want, large// wallet small.

When at work, what do you do? Do you visit with coworkers, try to avoid what needs done?

I know someone who worked two 40 hr/ Wk jobs in the summers during undergrad & vet school. He also worked 1 or two jobs of 10 - 20 hr/ wk when school was in session. Bosses were so pleased with the work, that on Christmas breaks and spring breaks, they would hire the person for special projects.
Folks asked "Wow, how did you get that gig?". The person showed up early for work _every day_, never asked for time off, if they asked him to do something that maybe was not the norm, he did it. If he was asked to work on a Sat or Sun, he did it. If they had a problem they wanted to solve, he tried to figure out how to solve the problem, and present a solution. He never _asked_ off. I never asked for special favors or times to work, I took the 'shitty' hours.
ego on 'I should not be doing that, I'm in vet school' was low // wallet big.

There may be some 'preceptorships' or jobs with instructors that may pay for part of tuition. Look for them!
And second part: if there is such a job, how do you standout from the other applicants?

What would your boss say that you put down as a reference? Would he/she say: "You would be crazy not to hire Robert M Miller because he will always show up and get the job done."? Not sure? Ask. If he/ she would not give such a reference; ask what should you do to garner such a reference! Then do it!! That information is priceless.... actually - it is worth a huge reduction in student debt. Not willing to ask= ego large// wallet small.

These are some of the many techniques I and many of my classmates used to graduate with less than 2 semesters worth of expense upon graduation! They work.

I am now going to say something that may not be popular but this is not meant to sound as harsh as it may come across. Just because a veterinary school accepts you does not mean to have to attend that school. I know you are saying, 'but this is my dream job'. How do you know? First, you should work in a veterinary office as a front desk person for at least 1 year to see what is truly dealt with on a day in / day out basis. It is challenging and rewarding, but not hugely financially so. I know many who will also say 'but I don't care about the money'. And while that may be true, Zig Ziglar said that "while money may not be everything, it is reasonably close to oxygen". When the weight of $300,000 of debt starts suffocating you, and weighs on you day after day, and you wake up at night wondering "How will I ever get off of this debt cycle"; the dream turns into a nightmare.

I want to help you avoid the suffocation and be a veterinarian that is glad they got into this profession!
I wish you all the best, and I know this plan can assure you of much less debt that the 'average'. How much less is up to you! :-) Feel free to contact me for more ideas.