The increasing cost of higher education and the resultant impact on student debt has received wide attention. Providing free tuition and reducing student debt were among the key proposals of the presidential nominees.
However, what is often overlooked is the cost of postgraduate medical education – more specifically veterinary education.
Students aspiring to veterinary education are investing in the hope that it will return value through payment from clients. However, as the associate dean for academic programs and student success at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine (MSU CVM), I am keenly aware of the impact of the cost of this education. From what I see, there is a crisis for those called to veterinary medicine.
One of the main problems is that the cost of a veterinary education is too high relative to future earnings.
Who becomes a veterinarian?
For many, veterinary medicine is a calling. It was the same for me. Growing up on a farm in a rural community, I saw how our family’s veterinarian not only protected the health of our animals, but also contributed to my family’s economic stability.
Moreover, in my community, the veterinarian was also a trusted leader – held in higher regard than most other professionals, including physicians and lawyers.
By the time I was in grade school, I had decided to be a veterinarian. Like many before me, I felt proud when taking the oath which called me “… through the protection of animal health and welfare,” to promote public health and advance medical knowledge.
And I am not the only one for whom veterinary science has been a calling. A recent study shows that more than half of veterinary students decide on their career path by the age of 10.
High cost of education
The unfortunate part, however, is that these highly motivated students end up owing a lot of money, and their earnings are not high enough to manage the debt.
A 2013 national survey of DVM graduates found the average debt for students was as high as US$162,113. This is similar to the average educational debt of $180,723 accrued by physicians in 2015. However, physicians have much higher lifetime earnings than veterinarians, making it easier for them to manage their debt.
It is true at the beginning of their careers, salaries for veterinarians and physicians are quite comparable: Veterinarians get, on average, a full-time starting salary of $67,136 annually. Physicians, who pursue residencies for advanced specialty training under supervision, soon after graduation, earn an average first-year salary of $52,200.
However, this changes over the years. The lifelong earning potential of physicians improves significantly in comparison with veterinarians. Over a period of time, the overall median salary of a physician gets to $187,200, whereas that of a veterinarian remains at about $88,490.
The situation is worse for women. Female veterinarians, on average, will not even break even on their educational investment until they are well past the age of 65 (or older).
Impact on wellness
Another crisis for the profession is wellness. Recent studies show that veterinarians have high rates of psychological distress, depression and suicidal thoughts as compared to the population as a whole.
One study found that a majority of veterinary students were clinically depressed. Although financial concerns were not the only worry, they were a component of the stress veterinarians were facing.
Nonetheless, the demand for veterinary medicine seems to be growing. There are 30 accredited colleges of veterinary medicine in the United States with over 4,100 seats available as of 2014.
The application rate to these colleges remains strong. In fact, there has been a 2 percent annual growth in applicants to colleges of veterinary medicine since 1980.
So, what does this mean?
As a result of the growth in the colleges of veterinary medicine, more seats are available. (What is decreasing, however, is the applicant-to-seat ratio.) Two new colleges are seeking accreditation, while the existing ones are boosting class size. This expansion is happening in the face of the 2013 Veterinary Workforce Study that estimates that there is an excess of veterinary labor nationally.
High tuition, low wages, an oversupply of veterinarians and more seats to study veterinary medicine are strong signals of a veterinary education market bubble.
What can institutions do?
A national summit on student debt, organized by the American Veterinary Medical Association, Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges and MSU CVM in April 2016, came up with a set of recommendations to reduce student debt. This included increasing starting salaries by 10 percent and reducing veterinary student educational expenses by 10 percent.
Already, a national working group, representing many colleges, veterinarians and organizations, has committed itself to coming up with solutions to reach these goals. Advocacy initiatives for more favorable student loan terms have also been initiated.
But the question still remains whether colleges of veterinary medicine will decrease their tuition. Indeed, a college that can offer a high-quality education at a lower cost will have a market advantage.
But this change may come at a price many colleges are not willing or able to pay. Reduced tuition means alternate revenue streams, cutting costs (reduced faculty numbers) or increased class size to maintain revenue.
The truth is if colleges do not prepare and change, they risk being a casualty of a market bubble.