How to build a veterinary college

How the two newest U.S. veterinary colleges are modeling for the future
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If given the chance to create a veterinary college today from scratch, how would you design it?

Allow students to gain clinical experience earlier? Make sure they learn good communication skills? Focus on one-health and translational research? Create opportunities to help underserved communities?

In essence, that’s exactly what the two newest of the 30 U.S. veterinary colleges—at Lincoln Memorial University and Midwestern University—have set out to do. LMU and MWU may pursue these aims differently, each shaped by the environment and culture in which it operates. But at end, they intend to learn from what existing veterinary colleges do well and implement goals from the North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium (see article and article).

A big investment

Lincoln Memorial, in Harrogate, Tennessee, and Midwestern, in Glendale, Arizona, each received in 2013 a letter of reasonable assurance from the AVMA Council on Education, the accreditor of veterinary colleges in the U.S., and each enrolled its first class in 2014. They welcome their third classes this fall and could receive full accreditation status as soon as 2018, if all goes according to plans. Of course, creating a veterinary college is neither cheap nor easy.

Kathleen H. Goeppinger, PhD, CEO and president of Midwestern, said MWU didn’t make the decision to develop its College of Veterinary Medicine lightly. The university has committed over $180 million toward the program’s physical facilities.

LMU’s Veterinary Medical Education Building
Construction on Lincoln Memorial University’s Veterinary Medical Education Building started this past spring and should be completed by fall 2017. The building will house lecture halls, study rooms, a communication skills laboratory, administrative and student services offices, and a conference room. (Images courtesy of LMU CVM)
LMU's DeBusk Veterinary Teaching Center
LMU’s 700-acre DeBusk Veterinary Teaching Center has over 100,000 square feet of facilities designed for education, research, and service in veterinary medicine. It will be used for large animal and small animal core clinical skills instruction, including safe animal handling, in the first three years of the curriculum. The center will include a staging facility for ambulatory outreach to Appalachian farms as well as a clinical research area.

“We’ve made a very huge commitment financially. That ties into our commitment for all professions we represent. We want people to have the best equipment possible and the tools to teach students the right way,” Dr. Goeppinger said. “We said from the beginning that if we go into veterinary medicine, we’ll make the profession proud and the university proud.”

Autry O.V. “Pete” DeBusk, chairman of LMU’s board of trustees and a major backer of the university, won’t say exactly how much has been invested in the College of Veterinary Medicine. However, the 140,000-square-foot Hamilton Math and Science Building, completed in 2012 at a cost of $30 million, houses the first three years of the veterinary curriculum—that is, until the Veterinary Medical Education Building, currently under construction, is completed next fall. Lincoln Memorial also has the DeBusk Veterinary Teaching Center, which houses facilities designed specifically for core clinical skills instruction.

“Veterinary colleges at land-grant universities are constantly modifying their facilities, but when you get a clean sheet, you build what needs to be built,” said Dr. Jason Johnson, dean of LMU’s veterinary college.

Market forces

It’s no coincidence that these veterinary colleges have been established by private, not-for-profit universities. Further, two of the three most recent programs created in the U.S. (Midwestern and, in 2006, Western University of Health Sciences) are based at universities that specialize in graduate education in the health sciences. Tuition is generally higher there, but employment prospects are also high because health care occupations are adding more jobs than any other sector.

These two facts speak to larger trends in higher education, according to Dr. James Lloyd, dean at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. He explained at the 2015 AVMA Economic Summit this past October that, starting about 30 years ago, federal and state legislators began pursuing a goal of smaller government and decreased spending on higher education. With the erosion of public funds for land-grant universities, where many U.S. veterinary colleges are based, these programs have had to supplement their declining revenue in various ways.

“And so you can see the price of tuition has gone up substantially. And we have had increases in the number of students to take advantage of economies of scale. But an interesting thing has happened: As price has increased, it has triggered new entrants. When veterinary colleges were state-supported, there wasn’t a market opportunity, but now that tuition has gone up, others see a profit opportunity, which has further increased the number of seats. I believe this is a direct consequence of the increase in tuition and indirectly from disinvestment in tuition” by the government, Dr. Lloyd said.

Tuition and fees at Midwestern’s veterinary college for this year are $57,085 and at LMU are $44,571; mean tuition alone for out-of-state students and students at private U.S. veterinary colleges was $46,352 for 2015-2016.

MWU CVM's Equine and Bovine Cneter
Midwestern University College of Veterinary Medicine’s 70,000-square-foot Equine and Bovine Center houses a small herd of dairy cows along with donkeys and nearly a dozen horses. Some are owned by the college, while others are owned by the Horse Rhythm Foundation, an equine-assisted therapy organization. (Photos by Malinda Larkin)
MWU's Companion Animal Clinic
The 109,000-square-foot Companion Animal Clinic at Midwestern opened to the public in December 2014. The goal is to accept residents and interns by 2018.


Feedback loop

Students at both veterinary colleges say the newness was a selling point.

“Granted, I was going into this kind of blind, but they seemed like they would be able to offer a good education,” said Madison Skelton, a third-year student at Midwestern. “They’ve been very transparent from the beginning. They told us upfront at the interview, ‘We don’t have buildings built, there’s not much to show you; here’s a drawing, and here’s what it’s going to be.’ Everything I was shown is now accessible to me.”

The faculty and administration at both institutions have made a point to solicit student feedback, whether through town hall meetings or via email. But members of the inaugural classes know they themselves may not see the results of a lot of the changes they suggest.

“We knew we would be guinea pigs and wouldn’t see results from feedback, but anything we can do for later classes, we’re happy to do that,” Skelton said.