Readers write: Acting on student debt

dvm360dvm360 May 2020
Volume 51
Issue 5

Readers respond to a recent commentary about taking action on veterinary student debt.

student debt symbolic image

Brian Jackson / stock.adobe.come

Acting on student debt

The immense student debt facing veterinarians was addressed by Peter Eyre, DVM&S, BVMS, BSc, PhD, professor and dean emeritus at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, Virginia Tech, in a commentary that appeared in the February 2020 issue of dvm360 (“The time to act on student debt is now”). Some readers agreed with Dr. Eyre’s suggestions; others didn’t.

Dr Eyre makes great points and is right on target with what needs to be done to reduce student debt. As a veterinary community, we need to get something going to get the process started—the sooner the better. Much has been written lately about the problem of student debt, but action is the next step. I know it will be largely up to individual veterinary schools to institute change, but I hope they don’t wait until it’s an urgent matter to deal with when we’ve known for so long of the problem and potential solutions.

I am going to bring this topic to my local veterinary group and contact my state VMA to encourage action from everyone. Thanks, Dr. Eyre, for your well-written article.

Eric Bostrom, DVM

Rockledge Animal Clinic Rockledge, FL

I appreciate and agree with the perspective of my colleague Dr. Eyre, who expresses an urgent need to address the student debt crisis. As a 2013 graduate who has witnessed first-hand the reasons for it and one who has worked diligently to address it, I disagree that shortening prerequisites is a plan for success. There will be some short-term relief from this option, but it won’t be long lasting. Veterinary institutions continue to increase tuition at rates of up to 8% annually and hope to fill the gap by lowering the required credentials of the future members of our profession. There is already a lot to learn in veterinary school; it seems we agree shortening that isn’t possible. It is equally important that our professionals are well-rounded experts. There is value to the undergraduate education. If we are going to shorten the prerequisite requirements, where are the cuts coming from?

The cost of doing so is too high, but the United States produces highly trained, skilled veterinarians. Emulating international programs that expedite the degree risks degrading the qualifications of our professionals. To what avail? If we shorten the length of time it takes to obtain a veterinary degree that currently results in $174,000 of debt over 8 years, we are going to look back and lament the fact that the debt of our veterinary students is $261,000 over 6 years by the end of the decade. Within 5 years of making the adjustment, students are going to have the same amounts of debt they presently do and their degree will be literally worth less. We already have young veterinarians who are depressed and killing themselves because they feel trapped in this profession. We risk making it worse by depriving them of the ability to obtain undergraduate degrees that diversify their skillsets and enable them to make a living outside of veterinary medicine if they so choose.

I really respect the offer to downsize administrative costs. I recommend this to be the first, but not the final, step in our immediate plan. Administrative bloat in our academic institutions is a primary factor in the rising cost of veterinary education, and it does nothing to improve the academic standard. Veterinary students are adults, as are the instructors who teach them, and I believe both could do better without the oppression of underworked administrators drawing hugely expensive salaries on the backs of students and taxpayers. Other suggestions I might add follow.

AVMA Council on Education (COE)–accredited colleges should be required to convert themselves to self-lending institutions. New scholarships and endowments can make that happen along with the appropriate use of state funding. Self-lending institutions will have a vested interest in making sure their students are successful, get jobs and can afford to pay back their loans. If the product of the university fails, the university producing it should face the same fate.

Academic administrators also need to take a stand against the “university tax.” Veterinary students at many institutions across this country are subsidizing the cost of undergraduate students. I paid more to The Ohio State University as a veterinary student not utilizing the university’s services than I did when I was an animal sciences undergraduate major who was using those services. This is wrong and a prolific problem.

We need to recognize the inherent conflict of interest that exists in a system that calls on academic administrators who always seem to ask us for more money to determine the best path forward in fixing our debt problems. Last I checked, if we want to fix predatory lending practices we don’t call the CEO of the nation’s largest banks to ask how to accomplish the task. Veterinary students are given as much money as they need to live and earn their degree. I’m not an economist and don’t have all of the information on state funding, but it doesn’t seem entirely clear to me that there is a drastic reduction in state support to public institutions. It does appear that the funding isn’t increasing at the rate the institutions would prefer. That is not going to change, so it’s time we make a model that doesn’t rely on tax dollars to educate students.

Veterinary institutions are highly respected referral practices and should function as such. They need to charge appropriately for the services they provide. If doing so results in decreased caseloads, it seems apparent the lackluster demand in that region likely doesn’t warrant producing veterinary students with that skillset. More likely, there are private institutions doing it better. Those private institutions need more veterinarians. Academic institutions should collaborate with these providers to train students. There is no reason why veterinary students need to be learning to use magnetic resonance imaging at the veterinary school for a financial loss if there is a successful, profitable practice in the same region with the necessary equipment on hand. The academic clinicians can work in these private institutions to achieve desired levels of income, and also teach students within the university setting and take advantage of some of the lucrative benefits the public sector provides.

A new education model is going to be required to produce a qualified veterinarian. An outdated educational model that requires too much administrative oversight is the issue, not a lack of funding, and make no mistake—students who pay the same for less education are still bearing the brunt of the burden. It is time we take this problem seriously and work as a profession to actually fix it. I encourage the AVMA, COE and our academic institutions to facilitate involvement of private practitioners with experience in building successful businesses to lead the charge.

Matthew Weeman DVM, MS

Bayside Bovine Veterinary Services LLC

Centreville, MD

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