What $300,000 in student debt does to the vet school dream


This first-year veterinary student refuses to lose hopebut he doesnt see the solution either.

Shutterstock.comI am an incoming first-year veterinary student. Currently three years out of college, I spent my childhood listening to my grandfather's stories about his time as a veterinarian in France, and I've always known I wanted to follow the same path he walked, as well as my great-grandfather before him.

The past seven years of my life, first obtaining a degree in biology and chemistry, then working at Pender Veterinary Centre as a veterinary nurse, have only served to confirm and further fuel my passion for this field. So you can imagine how ecstatic I was when I opened a letter beginning with “Congratulations, you have been accepted into our College of Veterinary Medicine.” Hands trembling, I could barely speak as I turned and hugged my mom and dad. Finally, after all of these years of dedication and hard work, I could take the next step to fulfilling my dream. I could start down the path to becoming a veterinarian.

But once my initial elation started subsiding, reality began to creep in: how much would it actually cost to pursue my dream? I already knew it would be expensive and student loan debt was the No. 1 crisis facing the veterinary community at this moment. But I didn't realize just how bad it was until I went through the numbers myself.

Here are the cold hard numbers of my reality: The university I will attend requires its out-of-state students to pay out-of-state tuition for all four years, at roughly $60,000 per year. I will also have to cover living expenses such as rent, utilities and groceries, as well as textbooks and other materials, estimated at $12,000 to $15,000 a year. With federal loans covering the first part of each year's loan at 6 percent interest and the rest covered by private student loans at a variable rate of 8.5 to 10 percent, I should graduate from veterinary school with a total debt of around $300,000-not to mention the $46,000 of interest that will accumulate while I'm in school. In other words, my total debt will grow by more than 15 percent before I even earn my veterinary degree and begin practicing.

Since I knew I would be paying for veterinary school myself, I have been saving while working these past few years, to the tune of just over $20,000. However, after calculating my expected costs, I realized that would cover just a little more than one year of living expenses and school materials without touching tuition. As you can imagine, this is where the magnitude of my predicament began to sink in.

What terrifies me is that I am not alone. A large number of veterinary students are facing the same dilemma, with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reporting that more than 20 percent of 2016 graduates have at least $200,000 of debt before they enter the job market. And yet, after several months of searching, I have yet to find a comprehensive system designed to help future veterinarians emerge from under this mountain of debt.

Yes, there are scholarships and some debt relief programs, but these are, by definition, exclusive. These programs leave a not-insignificant number of veterinary graduates saddled with crushing debt they cannot hope to pay back with their expected salaries. In my scenario, without any debt relief, even if I were to pay $33,000 every year toward my student loan debt, I would still be paying it back for the next 20 years.

That means I will give up a huge portion of my post-tax salary until my 50th birthday, precluding any real opportunity to save for retirement or my future children's education (to prevent them from landing in the same predicament). Simply put, this doesn't seem like any way to live life, especially considering the energy and time it takes to obtain a veterinary degree, let alone practice in the field.

In writing this, I hope to encourage incoming and prospective students to formulate a plan for how they'll tackle this debt issue before entering veterinary school. I'm concerned that the financial burden of veterinary school may soon drive the best and brightest students to follow a different, more financially feasible path-if it's not already.

I find this heartbreaking. Why? Because the veterinary field as a whole will suffer, and the rising debt increasingly punish those who have put their hearts and souls into following their dreams regardless of the cost. I have a personal stake in this, as I happen to be one of those foolish people choosing to pursue my passion rather than do what makes financial sense.

I have always wanted nothing more than to become a veterinarian and someday open my own practice. My life plan has always been based squarely on reaching this goal. Unfortunately, the numbers do not lie, and I refuse to live the rest of my life under crushing debt. This is not, however, to say that I will simply roll over and admit defeat.

I have always been told that I'm stubborn, usually too much for my own good, and I simply will not allow this financial obstacle to prevent me from reaching my goals. I have spent the past several months researching my options and looking for a solution-to little avail-but if anyone reading this commentary has any wisdom that they can impart to help make my dreams a reality, I guarantee I will listen with an open mind and eager heart.

Although I may be just one person standing against this growing pandemic of debt, I will do everything I can to disseminate what I learn along the way to others in the same situation. My hope is that together we can stop this disease plaguing veterinary medicine.

Justin Sahs is a veterinary nurse at Pender Veterinary Centre in Fairfax, Virginia. He has recently been admitted to the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine and is set to begin classes in August.

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