Task force will look into student concern, feasibility
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As a nontraditional veterinary student, Jeremy George had a career before pursuing a DVM degree, which he says has helped him keep tabs on his finances. That's why when he received the bill for this year's tuition and fees at Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, he checked it against the previous year's bill. Lo and behold, for out-of-state students such as him, tuition had increased 2.7 percent, and the professional fees, which account for about one-third of the costs, had gone up 6.7 percent.
"I thought that was a pretty large increase, given that as a whole, tuition and fees went up 4.2 percent (for out-of-state students)," George said. "Honestly, I'm not sure how many people noticed it. ... It's one of those things people expect will happen, so maybe they're not sure about the legitimacy of looking at it with more depth. You just know tuition will go up every year."
George, a second-year veterinary student, decided to ask at the next dean's hour with Dr. Dan Givens, associate dean of academic affairs, if any documents were available to students to help explain the increase in costs. He was told that information might not be currently accessible to students. However, since the meeting, Dr. Calvin Johnson, dean of the veterinary college, and the provost have been working with George to generate a report to be more transparent on the way things are calculated.
Lately, veterinary colleges have put a greater emphasis on teaching students financial literacy to help them deal with their sizable educational debt. The real weighted mean debt of all U.S. respondents reporting debt for the 2016 graduating class was $143,758, an increase from $141,354 in 2015. (Notably, the typical veterinary college applicant has less than $10,000 of debt—which is only about one-third of the national mean for undergraduate debt.)
"I've sat through tons of financial literacy lectures, symposiums, and conferences. The onus is put 100 percent on students, and I saw that as a lapse in judgment on the veterinary field as a whole. Yes, students need to be financially literate, that's 95 percent of the game, but ... for us to be literate and understand, we have to see where our monies are going or why there are increases, and how they are adding value to our education," George said.
I've sat through tons of financial literacy lectures, symposiums, and conferences. The onus is put 100 percent on students, and I saw that as a lapse in judgment on the veterinary field as a whole. Yes, students need to be financially literate, that's 95 percent of the game, but ... for us to be literate and understand, we have to see where our monies are going or why there are increases, and how they are adding value to our education.
Jeremy George, senior SAVMA delegate, Auburn University
Student AVMA delegates discussed the issue during the open forum of their House of Delegates biannual meeting at the SAVMA Symposium held March 15-17 at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (seestory).
George, senior SAVMA delegate for Auburn University, put forth a recommendation that was later approved to create a Tuition Transparency Task Force. It is charged with gathering information pertaining to tuition transparency and investigating the feasibility of greater transparency. As chair of the task force, he said the first step is to send a survey to all SAVMA chapters by the end of the 2017-18 school year to see which veterinary colleges, if any, are giving such information to students and whether students think it's an important subject, and to inform them about tuition transparency.
"I mainly brought it up (at the forum) as a discussion point because I wanted to see if other schools were dealing with this, too, or have talked about it. I was happy with the responses I got that some schools are very transparent and open—that deans meet with students about increases—but other schools are not so forthcoming," George said.
A big surprise
Natalie Sylvia Tocco's story is a case in point. Tocco is a second-year student at the University of Prince Edward Island's Atlantic Veterinary College. Her home state of Rhode Island doesn't have a veterinary school, nor does it contract with any other states that do, so in-state tuition was never an option. An academic adviser told her about AVC, and when she looked at the Veterinary Information Network's cost of education calculator, its costs seemed comparable to those for U.S. veterinary colleges where she had applied. AVC accepted her in spring 2016. That summer, she found out that her tuition would actually cost $10,000 more annually than she had anticipated.
Tocco later found out that the UPEI board of directors had approved a tuition increase of 22 percent in February 2016, which meant international students would now pay $53,000 per year ($68,000 in Canadian dollars) compared with $12,000 a year in Canadian dollars for Canadian students. Dr. Greg Keefe, dean of the college, was quoted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in a Feb. 12, 2016, article as saying that Canadian students are funded both by tuition and government grants to the institution, and the tuition increase brings the revenue received from international students closer to the support the institution gets for Canadian students.
"And it also reflects what those students would pay at other institutions outside of Canada. With the change in currency value, we used to be one of the more expensive schools, and now we're actually one of the cheaper ones for international students," Dean Keefe said.
The UPEI student union voted against the 22 percent tuition increase, stating that the veterinary college should not be asking students to pay more out of pocket to maintain programming and should look at other options for revenue.
Regardless, neither the college nor university communicated the change to Tocco or her fellow international classmates, about one-third of AVC students, before they stepped on campus.
Tocco, who is now the current SAVMA president and senior delegate for the UPEI SAVMA chapter, has since learned that the university is not liable for releasing financial information to the public, as the provincial government exempts it from doing so.
"So (tuition transparency) would have to be a whole legal process, but I would love for the university to be transparent about why they increase tuition, especially for the international students. If you were accepted into multiple schools, that could make a world of difference," Tocco said.
"We'd also like them to explain why Canadian students' tuition hasn't been increased. A lot of us don't understand that. Just be open about it."
She continued, "They don't tell us where tuition goes, what the schools choose to spend their money on. That is valuable information. We want to know if it's going to the right spots."
A full accounting: state bills
The topic of tuition transparency has been gaining steam as tuition rates continue to climb. Tuition information posted on websites can be difficult to find or broken down in such a manner as to be downright confusing. In an attempt to make college pricing less opaque, Congress passed legislation in 2008 requiring all U.S. colleges to publish net price calculators on their websites. These tools allow families to calculate their individualized, school-specific tuition costs after accounting for factors such as financial aid, grants, and work-study programs. These tools have their own quirks and sometimes are no less confounding.
This year, two states saw legislation introduced on tuition transparency for public institutions.
In Tennessee, the Transparency in Higher Education Act, which at press time was still in committee hearings for both the state House and Senate, would require state institutions of higher education to provide detailed information on course instructors, materials, and assignments prior to student registration.
The University of Tennessee Government Relations team worked with other public higher education institutions and the bill's sponsor on an amendment that would accomplish the sponsor's objective of providing admitted students with additional tools to help plan and make informed financial decisions about college, according to a UT press release.
As amended, the legislation would require all state universities to provide admitted students with a four-year, nonbinding prediction of tuition and fees to assist in their financial planning and help inform final decisions on college selection. The legislation would also require universities to give public notice of proposed increases in tuition and mandatory fees at least 15 days prior to holding a vote, set forth factors to determine what justifies a tuition increase, and provide a report to the office of legislative budget analysis each year with information regarding how revenues from tuition and fee increases were spent.
In Oregon, the Student Voice and Transparency Act was passed by the Oregon House of Representatives and Senate and now awaits signature by Gov. Kate Brown. The legislation would require each public university to establish a council to advise the university president regarding tuition and mandatory enrollment fees.
The lack of cost transparency has likely contributed to the dual challenges of rising tuition rates and swelling student loan debt. Though this happens at every level in higher education, it can be seen acutely at the veterinary college level. In 1999, the mean annual tuition at U.S. veterinary colleges was $10,668, compared with $28,504 in 2017, a 167 percent increase.
At the 2017 AVMA Veterinary Economic Summit, Michael Dicks, PhD, then director of the AVMA Veterinary Economics Division, said he was surprised to discover that there is often no relationship between state appropriations and a veterinary college's tuition and fees. Furthermore, he said, "What their websites tell students the cost of education is, is quite different than what is being recorded through the (Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges) and its Cost Calculator."
That information also doesn't factor in program length, scholarships awarded, and whether a student can establish residency after the first year to receive in-state tuition, all of which impact tuition rates.
George said, "We are paying for our DVM. We need to be able to see and understand the value veterinary colleges are putting in to that degree to be an intelligent consumer."