Death to debt: Veterinarians are not alone in the debt debacle


Lessons from human medicine shed light on veterinary student debt.

Months ago I began to chronicle my personal battle with a disease that's plaguing an increasing number of veterinarians (see the May 2012 issue of this magazine). Whether you agreed or disagreed with my commentary, the statistics remain.

According to the October 2012 issue of JAVMA, 52 percent of 2012 veterinary graduates are entering their beloved career with more than $140,000 in student loans. Now consider an average starting salary of $57,566 for the same year's graduates (a decrease from 2011). For the majority of students, that amounts to a debt-to-starting-salary ratio of roughly 2.5. Now figure in the compounding interest on the student loans (even small percentages of large sums add up to big dollars) and you have a good feel for the boat we're in. Are your socks getting wet?

Most of you who graduated in the last five years are living that burden every day. And now I hear we're building some more veterinary schools and increasing class sizes. Good idea! (Pardon my sarcasm.)

We are not alone

When veterinarians are stuck, sometimes we need look to human medicine for reference. Granted, veterinarians are smarter, more talented, more physically attractive and—well, just better all around.

Having set those differences aside, though, I was allowed an interview with Julie Fresne, director of student financial services for the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC). With more than 20 years of experience working with student loans, Fresne proved to be a wonderful resource and a medical student debt guru. Her department's mission is "to empower medical students to borrow wisely and repay responsibly" by helping to educate medical school administrators, students and residents. During our conversation I couldn't help but picture a scholarly, yet fierce student-debt superhero blasting lasers at loan sheets and eating a fresh bowl of crunchy, chopped-up credit cards.

We started off with some rough number comparisons. The AAMC reports a median medical student debt of $170,000 for all 2012 graduates, which is a 5 percent increase from the $162,000 reported for 2011 graduates (ours was about 6 percent). Those numbers represent the 86 percent of medical students (compared with 89 percent of veterinary students) who graduate with debt, including debt accrued during undergraduate studies. With 62 percent of medical students over the $150,000 mark, our two professions are no strangers to debt.

Student outreach

Fresne shared that on an individual medical school basis, various initiatives have been tried to reduce this burden—with mixed success. Fresne's mission involves outreach to each medical student, which she accomplishes in two main forms. The AAMC maintains a heavily circulated website containing detailed facts and figures for current and prospective medical students. "Most of our schools provide on-site sessions with groups of medical school students at the beginning of their education," Fresne says. She also notes that a key time for her department to drive home its message is during the exit sessions at graduation time, "When students actually start paying attention to the debt!"

She adds, "We are concerned about the problem. We are worried that the perceived cost of debt may drive students away from medical school. Fortunately there are more repayment options available, such as the income-based repayment (IBR) plan. And pay-as-you-earn (PAYE), which will be available next year."

I asked whether the AAMC has any data on the length of time that medical students are burdened by their debt. Unfortunately, there's no comprehensive data at this time, and I believe that's a big indicator that the problem has only recently started to get out of hand. Since this wasn't as much of an issue in the past, why would anyone have bothered to gather those figures? Fresne clarified by explaining, "The landscape has changed so dramatically over the last 20 years. Also 20 years ago, the debt was substantially less. Probably few of those students are struggling to pay down student debt."

Looking ahead

Fresne realizes the full impact that the debt figures have on the future of medicine. "We want to make sure that we have a diverse group of people practicing medicine and enough physicians ... and veterinarians," she says. "As the owner of three pets, I don't want to think that there may be no (veterinarians) to take care of them!"

Rest easy, Ms. Fresne—when your Labrador retriever raids the trash can or your cat suddenly stops using the litter box, we'll be here to help—at a substantially reduced cost compared to anything your medical students could come up with. And when your kitty sinks his teeth into our hands, be amazed as we continue to smile and provide pleasant, courteous service. It's what we do.

Those who are serious about managing their debt and finances should also check out the personal financial management tools at This online resource allows you to create an account and populate it with all of your accounts: bank, credit cards and even your student loan accounts. You can see all of your accounts, transactions and net worth in real time, in one place. They also have a useful (and free) app that makes checking in even easier. I look at my accounts daily in less time than it would take to thumb through paper statements or log onto each online account individually.

And that's an important part of the battle. Seeing the debt every day makes it more real, and watching the interest grow the loan balances will give you a little more sense of urgency to get things done. Check it out.

Veterinary medicine is and will continue to be a dream career. Let's live the dream and not be overly burdened by the debt. Paying it back quickly will require some paying attention, initiative and creativity. And let's hope that our profession's leaders will identify the problems and begin taking some real measures to prevent this issue from restricting the future of veterinary medicine.

Dr. Jeremy Campfield works in emergency and critical care private practice in Southern California. He is also an avid kiteboarder.

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