Florida’s Vet Scholarship Program Gains Traction

The UF Veterinary Access Scholarship Program, which is expected to award $5 million in scholarship funds every year within the next decade, is on its way to helping reverse student debt.

A University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine scholarship initiative aimed at reversing student debt is making great strides since its launch in January, according to the college’s dean, James W. Lloyd, DVM, Ph.D.

The initiative, also called the UF Veterinary Access Scholarship Program, aims to award $5 million in scholarship funds every year for the next 10 years, a goal even Dr. Lloyd admits is ambitious.

“I started to think where we were [in scholarship giving] and what a stretch goal would be,” he said. “We need to do something substantial, something that’s going to make a difference.”

Lloyd recalled sitting down and asking himself what five times or even 10 times more in scholarship awards would look like. (At the time, the school was awarding roughly $500,000 annually to 448 students.) When he did the math on ten times the school’s then current level of scholarship awards, it equated to about half of in-state tuition for every veterinary medical student.

“That’s a benchmark,” he said. “That’s not saying we would only give scholarships to in-state students. But I started thinking that, if on average, every student that came here knew they could get a scholarship equivalent to half of in-state tuition, that’s pretty substantial.”

As of press time, the UF Veterinary Access Scholarship Program had raised $1.25 million. Of that, $204,000 came from a gift challenge. Paul Nicoletti, DVM, a professor emeritus of infectious diseases at the college and a longtime supporter of student scholarships, jumpstarted the program by providing a $100,000 challenge gift. It was quickly met, and surpassed.

In addition to the funds directly raised for scholarship, the college’s Dean’s Circle of Excellence has also raised $135,000 in support of the program, Lloyd noted.

Overall, compared to 2014, the college has seen a 24 percent increase in the amount of scholarships being awarded and an 11 percent decrease in the amount of average student debt, according to Lloyd.

Dr. Paul Nicoletti, a professor emeritus at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine, with two veterinary students who are previous scholarship recipients. Nicoletti made an initial gift of $100,000 to the UF Veterinary Access Scholarship program.

Tyler L. Jones

Dr. Paul Nicoletti, a professor emeritus at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine, with two veterinary students who are previous scholarship recipients. Nicoletti made an initial gift of $100,000 to the UF Veterinary Access Scholarship program.

Gaining Access

As the name implies, the UF Veterinary Access Scholarship Program is about gaining access, but what does this actually mean?

“It’s about access to the profession,” Lloyd said.

The program is designed to provide access on the front end to those who come to the profession as well as to provide access to career pathways at graduation, he said.

“We don’t want veterinary student debt load to derail a career pathway,” he added. “We want people to follow their passions because that’s where they are going to be best and that’s where they are going to make the biggest impact.”

Lloyd isn’t new to the issue of student debt. It’s a topic that he has been working on for years, he said. It quickly came into play after he arrived as dean in the summer of 2013 when he launched into strategic planning. After listening to various groups across the university—from students to alumni to faculty—it became apparent that everyone was concerned about the student debt load. It resonated with Lloyd right away.

“[Student debt] is a crisis,” he said. “The reality is that, in my lifetime, I don’t ever see government support for higher education making a substantial increase. It’s been on a downward trend for years…realistically, I don’t see it increasing. If it does, great, but I’m not going to hold my breath and wait for that.”

The other reality, according to Lloyd, is that if the University of Florida intends to deliver a world-class veterinary medical education, it’s going to be expensive.

“With those two things in mind, we just need to figure out what is it we can do,” he said.

Florida veterinary students aren’t the only ones facing high student debt. The problem is nationwide. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2015 Report on Veterinary Debt and Income, mean educational debt for new veterinarians has grown by about $6,854 annually over the past 10 years and stood at about $135,000 in 2014.

“There are other people with different approaches [to solving student debt] but nobody has really talked about the scholarship approach,” Lloyd said.

When he did the math and began looking at the potential base that the school has in terms of alumni as well as the “enormous amount of goodwill” apparent in the profession, focusing on a scholarship program seemed like the best approach.

“I just don’t think we’ve really explored the opportunity that a campaign like this could provide us as a profession,” he said.

When asked why veterinary colleges haven’t taken on this approach before, Lloyd offered a couple of possibilities.

“I think, as a profession, we probably don’t understand the fundraising business well enough,” he said. “I also think there’s a hesitation on the part of deans to dive into scholarship fundraising for fear of taking potential support away from academic programs.”

The college made the decision that it wasn’t going to rob Peter to pay Paul, as Lloyd put it, and it wasn’t going to reassign its development staff but increase it.

“We’ve done that and we’re going to continue to do that as this initiative continues to grow,” he said. “For us, it’s not an ‘either/or,’ it’s a ‘both/and.’”

Making it Work

Spearheading the UF Veterinary Access Scholarship program is Patricia Wlasuk, a six-year employee of the college. She was named director of scholarship giving earlier this year and is dedicated entirely to scholarship fundraising.

Although other veterinary medical colleges also actively pursue student scholarships, UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine is the first to have a development officer dedicated to this effort, according to Lloyd.

The college has been asking veterinarians, including alumni and others who support the scholarship goals, for financial backing to the program.

“We can solve this debt issue if we just roll up our sleeves and get to work on it,” he said. “We can solve it as a profession.”

Veterinarians can contribute either financially or help by pointing out potential donors, he added.

“With that help and with that broad-based approach, this is something we can solve and veterinarians can get on with the work that veterinarians do,” he said.

The initiative is gaining traction not just across Florida but nationally as well, something Lloyd said he had hoped would happen. Deans from other veterinary schools have even approached him inquiring about how to implement a similar program within their own school.

Still, there’s more work to unfold, according to Lloyd.

“This is not for the faint of heart,” he said. “This is a 10-year plan. To get to that, it’s going to take strategy, not just in fundraising but in maintaining the energy and positive buzz that we’ve generated already.”

All in all, Lloyd firmly believes the UF Veterinary Access Scholarship Program is the answer to the debt load issue.

“We want to recruit the best and the brightest and then provide access to career pathways where they can make a difference in the future,” he said.

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