New aim of debt program is helping veterinarians thrive

AVMA, AAVMC, VMAE to provide a new framework for better organization, coordination
Published on July 25, 2018

Joyful woman with 2 dogs The Veterinary Debt initiative, formerly the Fix the Debt initiative, has shifted direction after its creation two years ago, with a new framework and goals.

It all started as a summit held in April 2016 at Michigan State University that was intended to tackle the issue of educational debt. The AVMA and Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges convened 180 individuals who represented various facets of the profession. Out of that came strategic working groups composed of volunteers who attended the summit. The collective goal was to reduce the median debt-to-income ratio for new veterinary graduates, which stood at about 2:1, to 1.4:1. The working groups were focused on two areas: reducing debt and increasing income.

Results from the working group on raising career awareness, for example, included producing a video as well as a JAVMA article on the issue of expanding knowledge around multiple career paths in veterinary medicine (J Am Vet Med Assoc 2018;252:1200-1204).

Volunteers with the working groups have also been sharing outcomes from their own efforts, including a new app-based financial literacy pilot program, information around practice ownership, the Veterinary Information Network's Student Debt Center, and more.

But with volunteers meeting only twice a year, interest has faded, and the groups faced a lack of coordination and clear direction.

"Currently, there is only one active group, and the number of overall active volunteers has decreased," Scott MacKenzie, director of the AVMA Division of Membership and Field Services, told the AVMA Board of Directors at its meeting June 19-20. "As much as it was great to get energy and input early on, it hasn't worked with keeping up momentum. As with any volunteer effort, without support and structure, it's hard to move forward. ... We want to keep people and volunteers engaged but just in a different way."

Now the co-leading organizations—the AVMA and AAVMC plus the Veterinary Medical Association Executives as of July 2017—say it is necessary to provide a new framework that will facilitate better organization and coordination of these efforts.

Dr. Caroline Cantner, an assistant director for student initiatives in the AVMA Division of Membership and Field Services; Ralph Johnson, VMAE chief executive officer and director of special projects at the AVMA; Dr. Andrew T. Maccabe, AAVMC CEO; and others from those organizations met this past April. They agreed to have more regular communication and created a new framework for coordinating initiative objectives. They also revised goals of the initiative.

We're meeting the individual at key points where they are making decisions about finances—whether coming into school with loans they need to take out or when moving out of school into the profession and negotiating their salary—and giving resources along that pathway.

Scott MacKenzie, director of the AVMA Division of Membership and Field Services

For one, organization leaders took issue with reducing the debt-to-income ratio as a goal, seeing as the DIR is a lagging indicator. This means it is a measurable economic factor that changes only after the economy has begun to follow a particular pattern or trend.

"We need to have metrics and look at the DIR, but we're also working with Matt Salois (director of the AVMA Veterinary Economics Division) on some other indicators we can identify," MacKenzie said. "How can we track the success of what we're doing and seeing if it has impact?"

The AVMA, AAVMC, and VMAE wanted more flexibility built into future strategies. What they came up with was a new goal: to help veterinarians thrive in financially sustainable and rewarding careers.

Under the new framework, there will be three areas of focus: the individual, the veterinary profession, and society. Specific objectives can be categorized under each of the three spheres of influence. For example, collaborating with allied health professions would fall under society, while developing a pathway for personal financial success would fall under the individual.

"We're not putting our heads in the sand in terms of this as an important issue, but we're focusing on how we can help those who are a part of this career and setting them up for success. It's a different approach and attitude," MacKenzie said. "We're meeting the individual at key points where they are making decisions about finances—whether coming into school with loans they need to take out or when moving out of school into the profession and negotiating their salary—and giving resources along that pathway."

For the remainder of 2018, the organizations will work on the following:

  • Developing a timeline of key financial decision-making events, from preveterinary studies to retirement.
  • Performing a gap analysis of co-lead resources and initiative objectives.
  • Establishing a format for coordinating co-lead messaging and communication.
  • Transitioning volunteers with working groups to new opportunities.
  • Identifying a set of indicators to define and track progress on educational debt.
  • Supporting a federal advocacy agenda via the AVMA Congressional Advocacy Network and AVMA Government Relations Division.

With regard to the last item, the AAVMC and AVMA continue to work closely together to support and protect federal programs for repayment of student loans. For instance, both are part of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program Coalition, a broad-based coalition that seeks to preserve that program. They also support the Veterinary Services Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act, which would expand the number of veterinarians who can benefit from this program.

Next year, the goals of the initiative are to identify and develop tools and resources for individual veterinarians, define and prioritize research topics, develop scholarship metrics, explore potential new programs, and continue to support the federal advocacy agenda via the AVMA Congressional Advocacy Network and AVMA Government Relations Division.

The AVMA, AAVMC, and VMAE are also exploring options to provide additional support for the initiative, including hiring a part-time staff member to coordinate objectives, volunteers, and staff.

In the meantime, resources are available for providing help to veterinarians with educational debt.

The new website that the AVMA launched in July (see story) is a source of information concerning educational debt and financial well-being for veterinary students and recent graduates. Plus, the initiative has its own website.

In addition, the AAVMC has updated and enhanced its Cost Comparison Tool for 2018. The tool's interactive dashboards now contain updated data and features that allow users to compare data related to tuition and projected cost of living and debt financing.

Related JAVMA content:

AVMA backs bills on student loans, debt (Jan. 1, 2018)

Divided by debt (Jan 1, 2018)

Congress looking to increase cost of student loans (Oct. 1, 2017)

Debt summit moving into action phase (Oct. 15, 2016)

AVMA report gives specifics on student debt quandary (Dec. 15, 2015)

Pulling together to lower the debt-to-income ratio (June 15, 2016)

Action items from the Economics of Veterinary Medical Education Summit (June 15, 2016)