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Incentive programs do little to lure students
You can lead a veterinary student to grant money, but you can't make them drink.
Columbus, Ohio — You can lead a veterinary student to grant money, but you can't make them drink.
The adage couldn't be more true when it comes to the growing shortage of veterinarians in underserved areas and the desire of veterinary students to follow their true passions.
As individual states follow up last year's failed federal bill that would have offered veterinary students incentives to work in underserved areas of the profession, many students are either unaware of or uninterested in the opportunities, officials say.
"The incentives are not good enough for me to want to practice in a rural area of Illinois," says Krystina Stadler, a first-year veterinary student at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, adding only perhaps a full veterinary school loan repayment would be enough to make it worth her while.
Other students echoed Stadler's opinion, that most of the incentive amounts – somewhere in the range of $25,000 to work in underserved practice areas and rural communities – are not enough to make them change their minds about their career and life goals.
"I think for the students that are still unsure, it might be something to help them choose," says Shannon Skevakis, a second-year veterinary student at the University of Florida. "But if I'm on a small-animal track already, I'm not really going to change my mind."
Illinois' loan repayment offer is around $25,000, and is meant to lure students into working in underserved areas like large-animal medicine or practicing in rural communities. Stadler knows about the program, but says she has heard whisperings that, despite its offer, the state has not set any money aside to fund the loan repayment program. Additionally, she's on a small-animal track and won't put a price on her goals.
"The monetary value and the passion value is not there to switch," she says.
Other students said they might be willing to consider changing tracks for the right price, after hearing several lectures.
"If the money is there, the way it is, sure. I have loans to pay," says second-year University of Georgia veterinary student Josh Howie.
There are no repayment programs now being offered in Georgia – although one is pending in the legislature – but when asked if he would relocate to take advantage of such a program in another state, Howie wasn't so sure.
David Dawkins, another second-year student at Georgia, says if incentives were offered, he would consider changing tracks, but not necessarily changing schools where some programs are offered because of the vast curriculum differences between veterinary colleges.
Other students would be open to moving to take advantage of the programs, but say life can get in the way.
"If there was a good opportunity, I think people should take advantage of it," says Sarah Eatty, a second-year veterinary student at the University of Florida. Eatty is on a food-animal track, with interests in bovine and poultry medicine. But she wouldn't move somewhere just to take advantage of an incentive, no matter how good it is, because she has a husband to consider.
Though some students know about the pending programs and aren't sure if they would change their goals to accept them, others aren't even certain about the details and availability of these incentives.
"I know they exist, but no one has instructed us," says Rachael Buehler, another second-year Florida student. She has heard references made to loan repayment programs at her school, but says she isn't aware of any additional information readily available to students. "I don't know how to find them or take advantage of them."
Even Student American Veterinary Medical Association (SAVMA) leaders, who gathered March 26 for their annual House of Delegates meeting at The Ohio State University, have concerns and misconceptions about the programs offered.
Ewen Wolff, a second-year veterinary students and the senior SAVMA delegate from the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, says it seems only food-animal track students qualify for the various loan repayment programs.
The Congressional help being sought in the search for veterinarians for underserved areas has been focusing on food-animal tracks because food safety is a top priority for the Obama administration, explains Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, director of the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) Governmental Relations Division, but some areas are underserved in small-animal medicine, too.
"Hopefully it will get opened up to all underserved areas in the future, like small-animal needs in inner cities," Lutschaunig says.
But state efforts to reward students who will work in underserved areas don't seem to be doing much to satisfy the need, says Claire McPhee, a first-year veterinary student and the delegate from North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Lutschaunig says the programs will work, but they take time to get going. He thinks a recent government report detailing the severity of the veterinary shortage problem will motivate legislators to take the issue and incentive programs more seriously.
They'll need to make incentives more attractive, though, says Lutschaunig – an opinion illustrated by students like Stadler.
The federal program proposed last year would have awarded students up to $10,000 per year, with a $60,000 maximum. But after taxes, students would see even less, Lutschaunig adds.
"Is $10,000 an incentive? We don't think so. Is $6,000? 'Cause that's what you're going to get," he points out, adding the AVMA is working to make grants and loan repayment programs tax exempt.
Other concerns involved the quality of students taking advantage of the repayment programs.
"The large-animal incentive programs seem to target last year students or undecided students and throw money at them at the last minute," says Grant Middleton, a delegate and second-year veterinary student from the Lousiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine. "I think that might result in less qualified veterinarians."
That concern is valid, says Lutschaunig, adding that the AVMA is looking at a private incentive program that would approach students earlier in their veterinary school career.
Whatever the AVMA, states and federal legislators do, it appears they better do it quickly, with many federal veterinarians predicted to reach retirement age within the next five years and few veterinary students excited at the prospect of sacrificing their first few years in practice for grants that equal only a tiny fraction of their anticipated $100,000 student debt.