In the past three decades, only one new veterinary school has been established in the United States. But in just the past 18 months, four new schools have been proposed. At least one will open by 2014.
The wave of proposals has stakeholders in academia and the profession at large wondering about the wisdom of starting new schools considering the economic reality facing today’s new veterinarians: lower wages, fewer job opportunities, rising tuition and skyrocketing student loan debt.
The New Players
Of the four proposed schools, only one is assured. The other three are in the planning stages.
Like Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., which boasts the most recently established college of veterinary medicine, Midwestern University is a private, nonprofit institution that offers degrees in several medical disciplines at campuses in Glendale, Ariz., and Downers Grove, Ill. The school’s first class of 100 veterinary students will arrive on the Arizona campus in fall 2014.
Meanwhile, 120 miles to the southeast in Tucson, the University of Arizona’s board of regents committed $2 million to investigate building a school of veterinary medicine, which Shane Burgess, Ph.D., dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, called a natural extension of the university’s land-grant status.
Arizona could go from zero veterinary schools in 2012 to two by the end of the decade, but Burgess downplayed any potential conflict.
“[Midwestern] is a private school and they have their own missions and mechanisms of operating,” he said. “We have a different way of running the program, and we may be looking at different pools of students.”
Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn., which operates a veterinary technology school, last year reported its intentions to pursue a school of veterinary medicine focusing on large animals. The university is seeking reasonable assurance of accreditation from the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Council on Education before taking additional steps, a representative said.
Finally, an unorthodox project is being mulled in western New York, where real estate developer Chason Affinity proposed the $65 million renovation of a 10-acre, eight-building abandoned hospital in Buffalo.
The property owner, Kaleida Health, chose Chason Affinity’s project from several other proposals and has committed $1 million to bring the school to fruition.
An existing veterinary school likely would occupy the space, said Mark Cushing, a project adviser and a partner at the Tonkon Torp LLP law firm of Portland, Ore., which represents animal health entities such as Banfield Pet Hospital, Mars Inc. and Putney Inc. as well as Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine and the National University of Mexico.
The Veterinary Void
Both Midwestern and the University of Arizona cited the demand for veterinarians in the state as part of their impetus for pursuing schools of veterinary medicine.
Burgess noted a need for more large and small animal veterinarians in rural Arizona, a view echoed by Kathleen Goeppinger, Ph.D., Midwestern’s president and CEO.
“We’re definitely going to focus on both [large animal and small animal education],” she said. “Our focus is to help the rural parts of Arizona that have a large deficit when it comes to veterinary medicine.”
Both Arizona and Midwestern plan to aggressively recruit veterinary students from parts of the state with veterinary shortages, with the hopes that those students will return to those areas to practice after graduation. Arizona as a whole doesn’t lack for veterinarians. The state ranks 17th in veterinarians per capita and 14th in the total number of veterinarians.
Chason Affinity LLC, the Buffalo, N.Y., property developer pushing for the upstate veterinary college, forecast an unmet demand for veterinary medical education in the United States.
“The proposal is based on an observation of shortages of veterinarians nationwide and a lack of veterinary school slots,” Kaleida Health said in a news release in late August.
BVA Is Concerned About New School
The University of Surrey, located in the southwest London suburb of Guildford, is planning a degree program with an emphasis on research, veterinary pathology and livestock medicine.
“Reports of a new veterinary course at the University of Surrey will be of significant concern to our members, particularly veterinary students and recent graduates,” said Peter Jones, BVSc, MRCVS, president of the British Veterinary Association.
“We are already seeing an increasing intake of students at the existing veterinary schools,” he noted. “Another veterinary course will place even more graduates onto the veterinary employment market, putting significant pressure on the employment prospects of individual graduates.”
The program could result in a glut of skilled but debt-ridden veterinarians lining up at the unemployment offices, Jones said. New graduates typically find their first jobs six to nine months after graduation.
“We currently have sufficient [veterinarians] to meet demand,” Jones said. “Another veterinary course could tip the balance too far the other way.” —DA
In its initial announcement last year, Midwestern quoted an American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges statistic of a projected shortfall of 15,000 veterinarians in the United States over the next 20 years. But the AAVMC said the figure was calculated in prerecession 2006 and is likely no longer valid.
On the other hand, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, published in 2010, projected a need for 22,000 additional veterinarians from 2010 through 2020.
However, despite having no additional schools, U.S. veterinary enrollment has increased at a steady clip of about 1.9 percent annually as existing colleges accommodate additional students. If that trend continues, the bureau’s projected need will be surpassed by nearly 10,000 new veterinarians.
In 2007, several veterinary organizations funded a “Workforce Needs in Veterinary Medicine” report, which was conducted by the National Research Council and published in 2011. The authors found little evidence of workforce shortages in veterinary medicine. The only exceptions were in industry, where Ph.D. veterinarians are in short supply, and in rural areas, where large animal veterinarians are becoming scarce.
Doctorate of Veterinary Misgivings
Inflation-adjusted starting salaries for veterinarians have declined by 6.5 percent since 2009, partly due to the recession, according to the AVMA’s annual survey.
Meanwhile, the cost of education has steadily increased at an inflation-adjusted rate of about 4 percent a year since 2001, and the real, average debt carried by veterinary students has nearly doubled in 12 years, to $151,672.
“We [in academia] are more concerned about elements of the profession related to student debt than anything else,” said Deborah Kochevar, DVM, Ph.D., dean of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “We are working very hard…to ensure that grads are managing that.”
On top of being paid less and accumulating more debt, graduates are having a more difficult time finding a job. In 2000, 90.5 percent of fourth-year veterinary students had a job offer by graduation. In 2010, the number shrank to 78.9 percent, and in 2012 only 61.5 percent of graduates had a job or advanced study program lined up, according to the AVMA survey of fourth-year students.
“I’m not fully convinced that we need four new vet schools,” said Karen Felsted, CPA, DVM, CVPM, president of Felsted Veterinary Consultants Inc. in Dallas, and former director of the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues. “While there is a demand for seats in veterinary schools, is it clear there is increased future demand for veterinary services? Have all the relevant factors been considered—not just expected population increases but things like the decline in pet ownership, the shift in pet owners’ use of veterinary services and the decline in product revenue at veterinary clinics?”
To the Future!
Colt Daugherty planned to go into veterinary medicine when he enrolled in a pre-DVM program about 10 years ago. While earning his undergraduate degree, Daugherty worked multiple internships for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. Daugherty so impressed the Pfizer brass that he was offered a job upon graduating with his bachelor’s degree.
He was debt-free at the time, and the allure of a lucrative income enticed Daugherty to eschew a veterinary degree and take a full-time job with the Madison, N.J.-based company. He spent the next three years working with dairies and veterinarians and running antibiotic clinical trials.
“I found that I was behind the desk more than I had anticipated,” Daugherty said. “I grew up in a rural background, on a farm, and about two years into that job, I realized that sitting behind the desk and doing paperwork wasn’t for me.”
Daugherty left to pursue his DVM degree at Colorado State University. He’s now in his second year of graduate school, and he does not regret the decision.
“It was a major dilemma,” he said. “I had to decide whether to put myself $100,000 to $150,000 in debt to go back to school.”
Had Daugherty stayed with Pfizer, he probably would have earned a higher income in 2015 than he will when he graduates that year. But he believes his earnings ceiling will be higher with a DVM degree should he return to research or a government position.
Though Daugherty’s route is nontraditional, his thought process represents the rule rather than an exception, said Andrew Maccabe, executive director of the AAVMC.
“Of course it would be nice to graduate and enter a very high paying job your first year and make a great living, and certainly we want veterinary medicine to be a lucrative career,” Maccabe said. “But when you consider lifetime earnings to cost of education, it’s still a pretty favorable balance.”
Even with a decline in salaries, the cost-to-benefit ratio of a degree in veterinary medicine may be worthwhile for the intellectually inclined, he added.
“It’s a challenging career that offers lots of opportunities in dealing with human and animal health,” he said. “Nobody I went to vet school with aimed to get rich.”
Editor's note: This story was updated on Nov. 30, 2012, to correct a reporting error regarding the legal classifications of Western University of Health Sciences and Midwestern University.