Student debt: What’s the problem?
The reality of veterinary school student debt, what the future holds, plus what can be done to overcome this dilemma.
The system that educates veterinarians in the United States faces a serious problem—a majority of veterinary students are graduating with overwhelming educational debt. Trouble has been brewing for some time, but it has now reached a critical level.
As their general funding declined, veterinary colleges expanded enrollment, mostly with out-of-state students, and increased tuition and fees to compensate. Tuition began rising above inflation in the 1990s and roughly 85% of veterinary students now have debt. The mean in-state tuition at US veterinary colleges is $32,000 and for nonresidents, $53,000. The average veterinary graduate owes $170,000 and their starting salary is $82,000, resulting in a debt-to-income ratio of 2.1:1. Ideally, this figure should not be greater than 1:1.
Recently I have been having a recurring nightmare in which I’m living in the year 2026, stuck in a slow-moving tragedy in academic veterinary medicine that keeps on building and has no escape. The budget collapse caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is still being felt and remote instruction continues to occupy a large portion of veterinary education at the expense of in-person learning. Tuition and fees have not diminished; instead they have increased. No one has attempted to control educational costs, and some schools have continued expanding their enrollment. The mean in-state tuition is $40,000, and nonresident students are paying $65,000. Newly graduated veterinarians owe more than $200,000 on average, and their starting salary is $85,000. In 2026, the debt-to-income ratio is now 2.3:1.
Is this just a fantasy? Why do I imagine there will be no improvement in the student debt problem in the foreseeable future?
In my view, academic veterinary medicine is too complacent and comfortable with the status quo. Decades of successful professional education with little or no cost accountability have lulled the colleges into feelings of false security. No sense of urgency exists because academia is assured that students can obtain loans to pay for whatever tuition the colleges want to charge. Also, a unique feature of veterinary medicine is its dependence on the human-animal bond. Many students are willing to overborrow whatever it takes without considering the long-term ramifications because the emotional reward of becoming a veterinarian is so great.
Educational debt is an existential threat that is more immediate than most veterinarians seem to think. Without a reduction in educational spending, tuition will continue to rise; that is until the doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) degree becomes so prohibitively expensive that many potential applicants—particularly those from low-income families—decide not to pursue veterinary careers because they can’t afford the cost of education. If nothing changes, veterinary education will become the preserve of the wealthy middle-class who can pay the exorbitant price. This is an affront to those with limited financial means and will further aggravate social inequality within the veterinary profession.
If the number of applicants were to fall below the total number of available seats, veterinary colleges would find themselves competing with each other for students. Inevitably, some schools would have to settle for a smaller enrollment and might not have sufficient tuition income to support the full range and quality of academic disciplines required for accreditation. Sustainability would be very challenging, and it is possible that some veterinary colleges would not survive.
If this scenario sounds improbable, consider what happened in other professions. During the 1980s and 90s, 10% of dental schools closed due to a severe decline in applicant numbers caused by excessive tuition and student debt coupled with low practice salaries (... sound familiar?). More recently (for the same reasons), law school demand has fallen dramatically and numerous law schools have been shuttered since 2001. Dental education managed to recover because they had something we don’t have: a plan. Veterinary colleges should not view themselves as immune to the socioeconomic pressures that affected other professions. Letting things take their course, waiting for a budget crisis to mobilize needed action is not a plan.
Veterinary schools must find ways to curb excessive increases in tuition by managing all their public and private resources more stringently. College administrators should systematically assess the relative value of their many programs and projects, identifying and removing barriers, duplications, and redundancies that hamper efficiency and productivity. Also, they can include unrestricted charitable gifts in their teaching budgets, which is already standard practice at private institutions. Strategies will vary from college to college but the implications are the same. Improving operational efficiency and adding philanthropic contributions will free up cash to support tuition discounts that make education more affordable. Efficiency and affordability go hand in hand.
Since the 1970s, there have been 10 forward-looking studies of the veterinary profession. In 2016, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) sponsored the Fix the Debt Summit. And in 2018 the AVMA and American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges jointly established the Veterinary Futures Commission to study trends and identify future needs. At the same time, several colleges decided to conduct their own analyses. But nothing changed—recommended actions were not implemented. We didn’t even try!
Positively, some ongoing initiatives that help students survive include the US Department of Agriculture Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program; university-based financial aid; college scholarships and grants funded by private gifts; mental health support services; and finance literacy education included in the veterinary curriculum. Unquestionably, these are good ideas that should be expanded; however, they do nothing to remedy the root cause of the problem.
A big step toward reducing student costs would be to reconfigure the DVM degree program so that preveterinary course requirements can be completed in 2 years rather than 4. The 8-year path to the veterinary degree is unnecessarily long. The AVMA Council on Education has fully accredited a number of well-established 5- and 6-year veterinary degrees worldwide, and several US veterinary schools accept students with just 2 years’ undergraduate education and have for decades. This arrangement significantly reduces educational and living expenses and also permits graduates to enter professional employment 2 years sooner. There is no compelling reason why a 6-year path to the DVM degree should not be formally established in the United States. It is the single most meaningful and simple action that veterinary education could take.
However, it should not be left to chance. To ensure success, colleges must advertise the program on their websites and build relationships with the K-12 education system so that the 6-year veterinary degree becomes the high school student’s natural choice. Inevitably, major change disrupts the status quo and is potentially controversial. However, finding solutions to the most difficult problems demands fresh thinking that necessarily involves risk and a temporary loss of security. Both overt and covert opposition within the academic community is all but guaranteed. Nevertheless, fixing student debt requires faculty participation, and they cannot expect to solve the problem using the same thinking they used when creating it.
Excessive tuition and student debt have been taken for granted for too long—an attitude that shows a lack of imagination and a failure of ethics and moral responsibility. We fail the students when we deny them affordable veterinary education. We fail our profession when we financially handicap future veterinarians, many of whom will experience mental health deterioration affecting their personal lives, professional performance, and job satisfaction. Eventually, there will be a costly backlash: Alumni who are drowning in debt are unlikely to make charitable gifts to benefit their colleges.
There are few things that make me more anxious than the educational debt crisis that is unfolding in veterinary medicine. What is so frustrating is that veterinary colleges understand full well that a majority of their students are in serious financial trouble as a consequence of high tuition. They don’t need any more analyses to tell them what they already know. The colleges must summon the courage to do what’s right before it is too late.
The best time to begin controlling tuition and easing student debt was 10 years ago. The second-best time is now. We have the information and expertise to start doing what we know today, if only we have the will.
“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” -Abraham Lincoln
Peter Eyre, DVM&S, PhD, BVMS, BSc, is a professor and dean emeritus at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Editors note: All veterinary technician content for this month is supported by Banfield Pet Hospital.