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More students abstain from declaring race, gender


Washington - A greater number of minorities are studying veterinary medicine, but the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges' (AAVMC) latest enrollment data show the increase at just .4 percent.

WASHINGTON — A greater number of minorities are studying veterinary medicine, but the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges' (AAVMC) latest enrollment data show the increase at just .4 percent.

That brings the total of underrepresented students to 10.7 percent of the U.S. student body, which does little to change veterinary medicine's status as one of the nation's least racially diverse health-care professions.

What's more significant, officials say, is the number of students declining to disclose their race. AAVMC usually omits the category from its annual Student Enrollment Data Comparative Report. But the group has grown fourfold since 2003, making it statistically relevant and hard to ignore, diversity expert Lisa Greenhill says.

"It's actually larger than most of the ethnic groups we're studying," she says. "This is something we've been watching for a long time in academia."

It's a trend not unique to veterinary medicine. Since the University of Michigan's minority-friendly admissions policies narrowly won the U.S. Supreme Court's approval in 2003, Greenhill surmises white students increasingly have leaned toward privacy when it comes to disclosing their race. The reason, according to scientists studying the phenomenon: "The literature suggests that a large component of that population are actually white students who say we need to move beyond issues of race and ethnicity. It's a protest," Greenhill says.

Such dissent doesn't sit well with experts who view the largely white, increasingly female student body as woefully unrepresentative of the U.S. population and the clients that veterinarians serve. Iowa State University's DVM program ranks last in diversity, according to a 2007 AAVMC report examining student body makeup among the nation's 28 veterinary institutions (see Table 1). Yet Iowa State's Dr. Donald Draper, associate dean of Academic and Student Affairs, says officials are moving on the issue. The veterinary college beefed up the number of scholarships available to potential underrepresented students, and this fall, up to 10 percent of those incoming are racial or ethnic minorities, he says.

Table 1 Percentage of minority students

"Within the last several years we have been making some targeted initiatives in terms of recruitment," Draper says. "We've hired an officer who has been working extensively with minority individuals. We're starting to show some progress, but we have a long ways to go."

Not a problem, survey says

Greenhill commends such programs but remains concerned about apathetic attitudes within veterinary colleges regarding diversity.

Negative perceptions aren't coming just from students who abstain from race questions, she says. An AAVMC report published in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education's Spring 2007 issue shows that 60 percent of institutional administration and faculty surveyed downplay diversity because they view their programs as already ethnically diverse. Results from the survey, sent to all 28 veterinary institutions and garnering 25 respondents, revealed that just eight DVM programs held faculty committees regarding diversity. Eighty percent of the respondents stated that the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education should not include teaching cultural competency as an essential accreditation requirement. And 68 percent responding stated that the undergraduate academic preparation of their applicants from underrepresented minorities is equal to that of their majority applicants.

"Overall, the results of this survey indicate that racial, ethnic and cultural diversity issues are not a priority for most faculty members at most colleges of veterinary medicine," the report says.

There also is a perception that minority students get a free ride based on race, Greenhill adds. "There's no flush of scholarship money out there for underrepresented students. People think that minority students have all this money and can go to school for free, and that's a huge misconception," she explains.

Race varies among post-graduates

Some respondents also admitted they view their veterinary program as more diverse than the rest of the university, "which is almost never the case," Greenhill says.

She suspects the false impression stems from the influx of underrepresented minorities in veterinary medical residency and internship programs, many of whom might have matriculated outside AAVMC institutions.

Racially and ethnically under-represented students make up nearly 30 percent of all interns and residents in U.S. veterinary programs, according to 2005-2006 demographic numbers, while their white counterparts declined in population by 30 percent.

According to Greenhill, that's a step in the right direction.

"We need a diverse workforce because it inherently makes us more competitive," she says. "There's an underserved population out there, and that's not resonating with veterinary medicine.

"I think people don't realize the impact diversity can have with clientele and in any other area of practice. They just don't get it."

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