Westward expansion

Exchange program dealing with growth in veterinary schools
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The advantages for a state to have its own veterinary program are clear. Greater input with admissions. Lower tuition for resident students. Increased likelihood that graduates will remain to practice in the state.

These have been the arguments made by university administrators and legislators in Arizona, Montana, and Utah. These states are in various stages of creating their own veterinary programs or developing partnerships with existing veterinary programs in nearby states. Amid this activity, administrators with the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s Professional Student Exchange Program wonder where this will leave them.

Infographic: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education

Less than full potential

Under the WICHE program, state legislatures appropriate funds to buy access to seats for their residents at other institutions. Seven states participate in the veterinary medicine PSEP, which sends students to the Colorado State University, Oregon State University, and Washington State University veterinary colleges. This year, 198 students participated in the veterinary medicine exchange, which is the largest among WICHE’s health care programs.

Funds are administered through WICHE’s PSEP and are sent to the enrolling institutions. The “price” for each seat (called a support fee) is designed to cover the difference between resident and nonresident tuition, with a small incentive for the enrolling institution to save seats for residents from WICHE states. Each state decides how many students it can support in each field and whether it requires graduates to return to the state to serve for a certain number of years. For 2012-2013, the seven sending states have invested a total of about $5.9 million for DVM-degree education.

Yet, the PSEP, which WICHE began in 1953, still isn’t operating at its full potential.

Margo Colalancia, WICHE student exchange director, says it’s been an ongoing issue for the sending states to get sufficient state funds to support more students and meet the respective states’ workforce demands. In the past decade, a mean of only 25.7 percent of certified veterinary student applicants received funding from their home states through WICHE for the seats made available through the program.

In the current academic year alone, WICHE had 113 potential seats for veterinary students open to residents from the participating seven states, but the states found money to support only 43 students, leaving 70 spots to be opened up to the national pool of applicants.

Plenty of options

The development of new veterinary programs and cooperative programs has the potential to further limit WICHE’s reach.

Utah State University admitted its first class of 30 this academic year as part of its 2+2 program with Washington State’s veterinary college. So now, Utah no longer participates in WICHE’s veterinary medicine program, which had funded a mean of 4.6 Utah students annually for the past nine years.

More recently, the Arizona Board of Regents voted Sept. 27 to spend $3 million for the University of Arizona to study the possibility of starting a veterinary program in Tucson. The proposal went to Gov. Janice K. Brewer on Oct. 1 as part of a fiscal 2014 state operating budget funding request.

If approved, the veterinary college would eventually enroll 100 students per class in UA’s Department of Veterinary Science and Microbiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

All the while, Midwestern University in Glendale, Ariz., is about two years away from opening its veterinary program’s doors, also with a planned inaugural class of 100 students. The private, nonprofit university is spending $90 million to build three structures totaling 125,000 square feet. Construction is set to begin in January.

Arizona has funded 22.3 percent of its certified applicants through WICHE’s veterinary medicine program in the past 10 years, which equates to about 13 students annually.

Then there’s Montana State Univer­sity, which is in the process of creating a 1+3 program with WSU. Ten students each year (with a potential to expand to 15) would complete their first year at Montana State and the remaining three years at WSU. The first class could start as early as fall 2014.

The university received approval for the proposal from the state’s board of regents Sept. 20 and will lobby the legislature to fund the endeavor when it reconvenes in January 2013.

Colalancia and Jere Mock, vice president of programs and services for WICHE, are working with the commissioner of higher education in Montana to preserve access to WICHE for undergraduate students in the state even if the 1+3 program gets funded.

Mock said keeping the exchange program available to students in these states allows them to have a greater selection of veterinary colleges so they can choose the program that best fits their career goals.

And soon, more choices will be available through WICHE. Western University of Health Sciences’ College of Veterinary Medicine is close to joining the program, and the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine is considering rejoining after a few years’ hiatus.

Plus, Midwestern University is a cooperating institution with WICHE in other professional programs. So, if its veterinary college becomes accredited, the institution could participate in the veterinary medicine portion, too, Mock said.

Stable funding

WICHE provides other benefits to participating states besides greater options for students.

Mock pointed out that the program is a bargain for the states and students, especially compared with creating a veterinary college, which can be a tremendous financial commitment.

Colalancia noted, too, that Colorado State and Oregon State offer clinical rotations in Montana, which can give residents a pathway home once they graduate. That’s not to say that students couldn’t create their own rotations in their home states, either. As far as states having a say in admissions, greater opportunities could be on the horizon.

The CSU veterinary college’s admissions committee recently experimented with involving a few members of the WICHE regional advisory committee, which include members from sending states, in the review process for applicants. There are still some concerns to be worked out, Colalancia said, but this could be made permanent in the near future.

Dr. Deborah Yarborough, president of the Montana VMA, said the issue is how the program is funded.

Before 1993, a special state education fund in Montana provided funding for WICHE programs and couldn’t be touched by legislators. But then the process was changed so the funding came out of the state’s general fund.

“Of course, they have complete control over that, so when any cost-cutting measure comes in, it’s one that is ‘easy pickings’ as they say,” Dr. Yarborough said.

“As all things with legislatures and money, the current system we have is always kind of on the chopping block for the legislature. And we think if we had a program of our own, it would be less likely that they could go after it, because it would be under the protection of Montana State.”

In Arizona, 47 students are participating in veterinary programs through the WICHE PSEP in the 2012-2013 academic year. The state provides a $30,000 support fee per student, bringing total state support to $1.4 million for the current academic year.

The state legislature has provided the same appropriation over the past five years. However, because of slight increases in support fees each year, the same amount of funds support fewer and fewer students.