June 15, 2015


 The profit margin

Education Department’s new rule affects for-profit veterinary technology programs

Posted May 27, 2015

For-profit institutions have proliferated throughout the higher-education landscape, and veterinary technology education is no exception with about 41 percent of the 225 programs accredited by the AVMA Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities run by for-profits.

Starting July 1, to qualify for Title IV federal student financial aid programs such as Federal Direct and Perkins loans, the Department of Education is requiring that degree-granting for-profits prepare students for “gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” A program would be considered to lead to gainful employment if the estimated annual loan payment of a typical graduate were not to exceed 8 percent of the graduate’s total earnings or 20 percent of discretionary income.

For-profit veterinary technology programs already have been making changes in anticipation of these new rules and others imposed by the USDE. Since last year, “gainful employment information” has been popping up on program websites, disclosing the total cost of the program, the median amount of loan debt for program graduates, on-time graduation rates, and the job placement rate for students who completed the program. Some programs have shared the percentage of graduates who took out loans.

Veterinary technicians and educators say often, for-profit institutions provide much-needed training in states where veterinarians are in great need of qualified veterinary technicians. But some for-profits have garnered poor reputations because of tuitions high above the national mean, substandard school performance, and pass rates below the national mean on the national licensing examination.

While critics welcome the new government regulation, some say it doesn’t go far enough to address issues such as misleading marketing tactics. And, to truly resolve the problem of large student debt-to-income ratios, they say that veterinarians must make optimal use of veterinary technicians and compensate them accordingly.

Opportunity knocks

Why do for-profits run so many veterinary technology programs? In a word: opportunity.

Dr. Scott Keller, president of the Association of Veterinary Technician Educators, recalls a 2008 Yahoo survey of the top 10 recession-proof jobs: Veterinary technician was No. 2. That ranking was based, in part, on the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting that employment of veterinary technicians would grow 30 percent from 2012-2022 because more veterinarians would use them for general care and laboratory work, replacing lower-skilled veterinary assistants.

Dr. Keller said that information spread everywhere—to students, employers, and, especially, colleges.

And the for-profit programs responded to those projections. The 2007 AVMA CVTEA survey of accredited technology programs showed 27 percent of the 130 respondents were private institutions. That number skyrocketed to 48 percent of the 195 respondents in the 2013 CVTEA survey. Of those, 85 percent were for-profit.

“Sometimes a college just looks at (creating a program) as a way to fill seats, and others see that the veterinary community needs qualified techs,” Dr. Keller said.

Julie Legred, executive director of the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America, said her home state of Minnesota had two veterinary technology programs two decades ago; now it has 12. Ten of those programs are run by for-profits, eight of them by the Globe University/Minnesota School of Business.

“For-profits saw waiting lists for these schools and saw there was some money to be made ... For-profits are known for not wanting to pay educators well, or at least not at a level that is feasible to keep them at the program, and once they’re accredited, sometimes they forget they are still supposed to adhere with CVTEA standards,” she says. 

For the most part, most for-profits were already on their way to making improvements. This (new USDE rule) will ultimately catch ones that don’t care about student outcomes, and (they will) go to the wayside as appropriate.”

Julie Legred, executive director, National Association of Veterinary Technicians
in America

“There’s a wide range of why they formed and how they perform, and I am not saying this is the case for every proprietary program, but some are definitely out there thinking this is a great way to make money.”

Legred thinks some for-profit programs, often ones with multiple campuses, know how to pass the initial, face-to-face accreditation evaluation and, for standards they did not meet, submit “a cookie-cutter template” for updates the CVTEA requires. By the time of the next face-to-face evaluation, the program is often undergoing an administrative and faculty changeover because of the learning curve involved in taking on teaching and leadership roles and complying with state and national program requirements.

Lynn Reece of the University of Georgia, CVTEA chair, says, “All AVMA CVTEA–accredited programs must substantially meet the Standards of Accreditation as outlined in the Policies and Procedures of the AVMA CVTEA. It is important to understand that the CVTEA does not characterize or rank programs in any way. Any type of categorization of programs by the CVTEA based on profit status would be considered inappropriate and a conflict of interest in assuring fair and consistent review of educational programs.”

Legred, who served on the CVTEA from 2005-2012, says, “I think the CVTEA has kept up appropriately. They’ve seen this happening and worked with programs and made them aware of any new regulations and gave the for-profit program a heads up that they better do something about the scenarios the committee was seeing.”

Follow the money

The problem isn’t just about programs keeping up with standards.

Dr. Keller, who helped start the veterinary technology program at Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Illinois, says it’s not uncommon for for-profit programs to cost two to three times as much as nonprofits. That fact is borne out in the 2013 CVTEA survey, which found the mean tuition for in-state veterinary technology students at public universities was a little more than $13,000. The mean tuition for institutions that have the same tuition for all students (i.e., for-profit and nonprofit private institutions) was nearly triple that at $36,012. Comparatively, Dr. Keller said his typical graduate earns a mean entry-level wage of $15 an hour, or about $30,000 a year.

He contends, although it is not a universally held view, that enrollment counselors at for-profits do a good job of selling students on scholarships and financial aid but not at showing the entire cost upfront. To students, getting half off of tuition may seem like a good deal, until they realize how much they are paying in total compared with other programs.

While a veterinary technology extern at the Louisville Zoo in Louisville, Kentucky, Sheri Croce examined a baby gorilla with veterinary staff. The externship was a steppingstone to her current job as a certified veterinary technician at the Phoenix Zoo. Croce is a 2010 graduate of Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Illinois, the country’s oldest public two-year college. For-profit veterinary technology programs typically cost two to three times as much to attend as nonprofit programs such as the one at JJC. (Photo by Dr. Scott Keller)

Still, veterinary technology programs are expensive educational programs, whether provided by public or private schools. And the private sector argues that public education, while less expensive for individual students, is still expensive; the difference is that society picks up the bulk of the cost, through taxes and other means.

Other enticements

Legred, who has had experience working at both a nonprofit and a for-profit veterinary technology school, says, “I think that a lot of times, students (at for-profits) have access to more admissions people than at state schools and are promised a lot before they get in. There’s a heavier push for getting them there than state schools have the resources for. Plus, the facilities are newer, so they look nice when students go to see them, which I think has a lot to do with it. Applicants are hand-held through the process more than what state schools can accommodate.”

Greater flexibility is another advantage of for-profits, which have more blended in-person and online courses, online classes, or classes in the evening than public schools generally offer, to better accommodate nontraditional students, Legred says.

Dr. Keller adds that for-profit programs put a lot of money behind publicity.

“It’s no coincidence that for-profit programs consistently show up near the top of Internet searches for terms such as ‘veterinary technician program,’ because they’ve paid for that placement. A student will say, ‘I’ve gone three pages deep and done my due diligence.’ The potential student should do a good job price shopping, but even if they do, they might not know there are other nonprofit options near them,” he says.

Passing grade

Another issue often brought up about for-profits is their pass rates on the Veterinary Technician National Examination. Dr. Keller recalls his shock over the small percentage of graduates who even took the VTNE, years ago when he consulted for a for-profit program.

“If you’re going to have such debt and don’t take the exam, you won’t be licensed and paid what you were trained for. So you’re way in debt, and it may not be the school’s fault. If you’re not working in the field, then you won’t get compensated as such. … So we focus on that, and it’s why we have a high rate of students who pass,” Dr. Keller says.

However, multiple factors besides the culture of an institution determine whether its students take the VTNE, from the cost of the examination to whether the state requires it to license, certify, or register veterinary technicians. And there are public-sector veterinary technology programs with pass rates below the national mean as well as for-profits with pass rates at or above the national mean.

Though it was not addressed in the USDE regulations, the CVTEA has stepped in to have programs release more information on this front. Specifically, starting in January 2014, programs have been required to make available on their websites their three-year pass rate on the VTNE along with the number of eligible first-time candidates and how many of them took the examination. Currently the CVTEA does not have a minimum pass rate requirement.

For some for-profit veterinary technology programs, the figures have been substantially lower than the three-year rolling national mean of 73 to 75 percent for 2011-2014 and 2012-2015. At the Louisville, Kentucky, campus of Brown Mackie College—a system of for-profit colleges—72 of the 147 eligible first-time candidates took the VTNE from 2011-2014, and their three-year pass rate was 40.28 percent, according to the campus website. Annual tuition and fees totaled $32,786, while the median federal loan debt for that campus’s program graduates was $21,211. Of those who completed the program in 2013-2014, only 35 percent finished in the expected 24 months. Yet the job placement rate for students who completed the program was 86 percent. The campus is accredited by the CVTEA.

Brown Mackie’s senior director of communications, Anne Dean, said Brown Mackie declined to comment, as did two other for-profit schools JAVMA contacted for this article.

Rise and fall

Given the new USDE regulations, financial pressures, and other factors, Legred says larger for-profits with multiple campuses have taken another look at their veterinary technology programs, which often have high overhead, and have started to realize “it’s not feasible to have so many programs in place” (see article).

Since 2011, 14 veterinary technology programs have closed, 10 of them at for-profits, seven of them on Sanford-Brown campuses. In most cases, entire campuses closed.

Sanford-Brown is a division of the Career Education Corp., which has been under investigation by 12 state attorneys general regarding its business practices since January 2014. The inquiries relate to student recruitment, lending, graduate placement statistics, and certification, according to a regulatory filing. The company said it is cooperating with the states involved.

Legred predicts a handful of for-profit veterinary technology programs will close each year for the next few years, particularly those that charge “the extremely higher tuition.”

“For the most part, most for-profits were already on their way to making improvements. This (new USDE rule) will ultimately catch the ones that don’t care about student outcomes, and (they will) go to the wayside as appropriate,” she says.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011 National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America survey, 2013 AVMA Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities survey

(click to enlarge)

The CVTEA has a process outlined for programs that voluntarily close. Specifically, they must place a moratorium on enrollment. In addition, all standards must continue to be met during the closing phase of the program. More information is available here.

Dr. Keller says a better solution for improving graduates’ debt-to-income ratio than more regulations is to have veterinary technicians earn more.

“These students are passionate about animal care. They don’t want to be glorified restrainers and blood takers. They are trained in all areas of veterinary medicine,” he says.

Higher pay would also help the attrition problem, he adds.

The typical veterinary technician stays in the field seven to 10 years, according to NAVTA’s 2012 National Demographic Survey. In the 2011 survey, 68 percent of respondents cited “lack of professional recognition” as a top-three–priority issue, by far the most popular answer.