Letter to dvm360: It's time to do something about student debt

September 14, 2017

This Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine professor is embarrassed at the profession's reluctance to actually do something about the rising cost of a DVM education.

The best brains in the veterinary profession have been thinking over the student debt problems for years now. This professor says it's time to put those brains to use ... (Shutterstock.com)The recent commentary by freshman veterinary student Justin Sahs (June 2017, dvm360) was authentic and poignant. The veterinary profession is oddly quiet about the educational debt crisis.

Educational debt poses a serious threat to the veterinary profession, and finding solutions will be difficult and controversial. However, we cannot ignore the challenge, especially when there is growing evidence that a perfect storm is gathering and we are ill-prepared for it.

Certainly, all the problems of veterinary medicine cannot be laid at the doors of academia. However, the profession and the public rightfully expect that the veterinary colleges-as the sole producers of veterinarians-will ensure the quality and integrity of veterinary education, including fixing the debt. But, the colleges will need support from the profession at large if they are to succeed. As veterinarians, our advanced education has given us exceptional social privilege. We need to take that privilege and its obligations seriously. Education not only qualifies us to practice veterinary medicine, it also empowers us to work more broadly for our profession and the public good.

In his book A Sense of Urgency, Harvard business professor John Kotter states that 70 percent of organizations fail to make critically needed changes in spite of well-established justification.1 According to Kotter, this failure is rarely caused by external forces alone, but is largely due to inherent complacency-even indifference-within organizations themselves, often caused by conspicuous successes in the past.

It's embarrassing that the veterinary profession is part of Kotter's failing 70 percent. There have been no fewer than 10 comprehensive studies and reports on future directions for veterinary medicine, including veterinary education.2 For almost four decades we continually meet and meet, talk and talk, write and write-yet consistently fail to heed the dire warnings or execute the critical recommendations in the reports. There can be little doubt that the educational debt predicament will grow even more serious if we do not act quickly. Change takes more than good intentions.

We need to ask ourselves whether our own field of veterinary medicine is part of the problem and how the various sectors of the profession might work together toward financial justice for our students and a more sustainable future for our profession. We should recall in our own veterinarian's oath we all made at graduation-to “use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society.”

Each of us can-by our silence-either perpetuate the status quo and educational debt injustice or work toward justice by speaking out and taking action.3,4 Which path will you choose?

Peter Eyre, DVM&S, BVMS, BSc, PhD

Professor emeritus, Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine

Blacksburg, Virginia


1. Kotter JP. A Sense of Urgency. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2008.

2. Dicks MR. A short history of veterinary workforce analyses. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2013;242:1051-1060.

3. Eyre P. Tuition and debt (lett). J Am Vet Med Assoc 2017;251:266.

4. Baker J. Fixing the debt (lett). J Am Vet Med Assoc 2017;250:606-607