Part 1: Veterinary schools need to evolve and adjust to the needs of students, who face growing debt loads and relatively flat salaries. That message was prominent during a panel discussion last week at a media conference hosted by Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc.

The panel featured:

·         Linda Berent, DVM, PhD, associate dean of academic affairs, University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine.

·         Patrick Halbur, DVM, PhD, chair of the Department of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine, Iowa State University.

·         Brad White, DVM, MS, associate professor of production medicine, Kansas State University.

According to recent studies from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), employment among food-animal veterinarians is 100 percent. Vet-school graduates with food-animal specialties find plenty of job opportunities, but there is not a significant shortage of food-animal veterinarians. Some areas, however, experience shortages of veterinary services, often because there is not enough potential business in the local area to support a veterinary clinic, or adequate salary for additional veterinarians in existing clinics.

Berent began by discussing the economics of veterinary education and student dept. According to the AVMA studies, veterinary students graduate with an average debt of $135,000, and a debt-to-income ratio of about 2 to 1. Funding for many state schools has been flat at best in recent years, while the cost of providing veterinary education continues to rise. Berent says tuition costs are rising by around 3 to 5 percent per year at many schools.

Nevertheless, Berent says the numbers and quality of applicants at her school remain high, and most students enter veterinary school with a good understanding of the cost of their degree and the debt they likely will accumulate. College faculty and financial advisors work closely with students to teach financial literacy, encouraging them to live within their means and minimize borrowing as best they can.

Upon graduation, Berent says some new veterinarians make employment decisions based on their debt and income potential. Some sacrifice geographic or professional preferences to accept a position with higher pay. Some others seek positions in their home communities so they can live with their parents or other family while paying off their student loans.

Halbur says Iowa State University’s veterinary school has been fortunate in recent years to receive increased funding from the state legislature, but many state schools have struggled to maintain finding levels or minimize reductions. More veterinary colleges, he says, need to run like businesses, using for-profit services such as their veterinary hospitals and diagnostic laboratories to help fund academic programs. Those services, he says, provide teaching opportunities for students while creating non-tuition revenue for the college.

White says that while Kansas State University’s vet school has seen tuition increases, faculty and administrators are working to educate students on financial issues as early as possible. He also notes that incoming veterinary students mirror the trend in the general population in that fewer each year have a background in animal agriculture. Also, with employment levels high in other agricultural professions, students with ag backgrounds can find good, well-paying employment with a bachelor’s degree. Those opportunities could discourage some from investing the time and expense in earning a DVM degree.

Veterinary schools can recruit students from non-ag backgrounds into food-animal specialties, White says, but those students require more general-agriculture instruction to become more familiar with agricultural practices and terminology.

Follow-up articles will cover the panel’s discussions of supply and demand in the veterinary markets and curriculum in veterinary schools.

Read part 2 of this series, which covers the panel’s discussion of supply and demand in the veterinary market and veterinary school curriculum.