Veterinary colleges look within for debt-reduction strategies

Main ideas involve shortened preveterinary requirements, scholarships
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Dr. John C. Baker says tuition increases at veterinary colleges are unsustainable. He should know. As dean of the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, he estimates that if MSU’s tuition and fees continue to increase annually at the current rate of 2 percent over the next 10 years, they would grow from $109,639 in 2015 to $140,329 in 2025 for residents and from $217,903 to $307,176 for out-of-state students.

“Here at Michigan State, we really feel the threat,” Dr. Baker said during the Economics of Veterinary Medical Education Summit. It was held April 20-22 and hosted by the veterinary college in conjunction with the AVMA and Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. In fact, the summit was Dr. Baker’s brainchild. Shortly after he was named dean in 2014, Dr. Baker saw the need for large-scale collaboration to address the educational debt crisis. He predicts that if nothing changes, one or more schools could close, or the existing ones could have far fewer faculty and students.

Dr. Baker announced at the end of the summit his plans to reduce educational debt for veterinary students at Michigan State. They include continuing to work with the provost to reduce tuition or the rate of increase, revising the curriculum, and advocating for increased support from state organizations and government in coordination with MSU. Already this year, he has worked with the state legislature to try to get $1 million in new appropriations for the Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health.

He has also requested money from the university to hire a career counselor who can help students diversify their career opportunities and successfully navigate the transition into practice. (The Ohio State University, University of California-Davis, and North Carolina State University already have such staff members, and Colorado State University’s recently left, but the position will be refilled.)

Dr. Baker
Dr. John C. Baker, dean of the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, says MSU will work in coordination with the other five veterinary colleges at Big Ten universities to compress prerequisites into two years. He has also told his development office that scholarships are the highest priority. (Courtesy of MSU CVM)

Two other ideas that seemed to resonate most with summit attendees and that Dr. Baker will pursue at MSU were reducing preveterinary requirements so they can be completed in two years and increasing both the amount and availability of scholarships.

Preveterinary requirements

Representatives from veterinary colleges at the summit said reducing the time to complete preveterinary requirements—from four years to two—would reduce student debt, by decreasing total time in college, and decrease age at graduation, resulting in increased lifetime professional earnings. Plus, payments on undergraduate student loans would start after six years instead of eight, which would reduce the amount of interest earned on any unsubsidized student loans.

Some U.S. veterinary colleges do not require a bachelor’s degree for admission. Take, for example, the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, which awards a bachelor’s in veterinary science at the end of the first year of the DVM-degree program for students who did not previously earn a bachelor’s degree.

Other veterinary colleges would also need to reduce preveterinary requirements, among other changes, to impact the debt-to-income ratio. These veterinary programs would also need to work with local undergraduate institutions on refining the curricula, for example, and work together to streamline the prerequisites and potentially create common ones across institutions.

The issue of dissimilar prerequisites was raised as early as June 2000 at the national meeting of the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions as a substantial challenge for applicants during the admissions cycle, especially given that the mean number of veterinary colleges to which candidates apply is almost four. The need for common prerequisites has also been cited in three major AAVMC initiatives: the 2006 AAVMC Foresight Project, the 2007 AAVMC National Recruitment Strategy Project, and the 2010 North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium.

In fact, one of the NAVMEC recommendations says: “A task force could be established and charged with developing common core requirements and recommend these to AAVMC as the core prerequisite requirements for veterinary colleges. Identifying these ‘core entry requirements’ would simplify admissions processes for students to most CVMs. This may also enable some students to consider an accelerated pre-veterinary program that they could complete in less than four years.”

Challenges associated with compressing prerequisites into two years, as outlined by educators at the summit, are that preveterinary advising needs to be excellent and that required courses must be scheduled such that students can complete them in sequence within two years at the undergraduate level. Concerns were also raised that completing concentrated, difficult course work in two years instead of four carries more risk, as fewer credits are calculated in the overall and prerequisite GPAs, and that students who were not admitted to veterinary college after those two years would not have an alternative degree to fall back on. Also, two years leaves less time for students to gain professional nonacademic experience, such as contact hours.

Regardless, Dr. Baker says MSU will work in coordination with the other five veterinary colleges at Big Ten universities to create two-year prerequisites, as courses transfer with ease among these universities. If that doesn’t work, MSU will go it alone, he said.


Veterinary colleges often point out that they hand out $400,000 to $600,000 in scholarships each year, but when calculated per student, that often comes up well short of the amount needed to make a substantial impact on student debt.

The mean amount of scholarship money available per student was just $2,488 for 2014-2015, according to the AAVMC. And that’s for the lucky ones. Just 46.5 percent of veterinary students received scholarships for that academic year. Veterinary colleges, most of which are based at land-grant institutions, don’t have the amount of gift endowments private institutions do, but now, with the decrease in state and federal government funding, they are playing catch-up, Dr. Baker said.

From the summit came ideas for veterinary colleges to work through the AAVMC and AVMA to develop a national campaign to raise new money for veterinary student scholarships, develop metrics to measure success, and set an annual goal that includes reducing the debt-to-income ratio of new graduates. The idea is to leverage connections with alumni and pet owners to promote veterinary student scholarship contributions.

The University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine is carrying out a targeted scholarship campaign right now.

Dr. Jim Lloyd, veterinary dean at Florida, said late last year that since 2014, the veterinary college has seen a 24 percent increase in the amount of scholarship money being awarded and an 11 percent decrease in mean student debt.

“Some of it is luck, some of it is emphasis on scholarships, and some of it is financial literacy,” he said.

Dr. Lloyd continued, “We need to think about how to raise scholarship dollars like we’ve never done before. We need to look at the profession first. Not that (veterinarians) aren’t carrying the load, but we have the network, and there’s enormous goodwill for the profession out there. Tell clients to donate to the scholarship fund at your alma maters. Once we understand the fundraising business better, it’s a hill we can push rocks up without much difficulty. I think we’re up to the challenge.”

Dr. Baker says he has told his development office that scholarships are the highest priority. He is also working on changing endowed scholarships to be less specific. “In the future, I want to see that they only require that a student is in good standing. As far as I’m concerned, they all have financial needs,” he said.

Leading by example

Many at the summit talked about mandating change at veterinary colleges through the accreditation process to impact educational debt. But Dr. Andrew Maccabe, executive director of the AAVMC, called it a blunt instrument that doesn’t work fast. And further, neither the AAVMC nor any other single entity has the authority to force veterinary colleges to do anything.

A better and faster way to implement change is to track what each school is doing in terms of financial aid, financial literacy, tuition costs, and the like, and then widely publish that information, Dr. Maccabe said.

“We’ll work with the high-performing veterinary colleges to demonstrate best practices and share those with the others so they can all improve,” Dr. Maccabe said. “Finding your school toward the bottom of a list can be a powerful motivation to institute change.”

Related JAVMA content:

UF veterinary college launches scholarship initiative (July 1, 2015)

Michigan State finds dean internally (Aug. 1, 2014)

NAVMEC ready for implementation (Sept. 15, 2011)

Views on NAVMEC draft report shared (May 15, 2011)

NAVMEC transitions from planning to action (Nov. 1, 2010)

Long road ahead to change veterinary education (Sept. 1, 2010)

Where rubber meets the road (June 15, 2010)

Preparations continue for education consortium (Nov. 15, 2009)

Officials say veterinary college prerequisites need streamlining (May 1, 2009)