Salaries, debt for new graduates continue to increase

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The latest figures on salaries and debt for the Class of 2018 show increases in both categories.

In 2014 dollars, the real mean debt of all 2018 graduates from U.S. veterinary colleges, including those without debt, was $143,111, an increase from $133,086 in 2017 and $138,151 in 2016.

Matthew Salois
Matthew Salois, PhD, director of the AVMA Veterinary Economics Division, emphasized that educational debt is not an issue for the veterinary profession alone, but a bigger and more complicated societal issue. (Photos by Sara Beugen)

Among 2018 graduates with debt, about 35 percent had borrowed $10,000 to $40,000 more than the total cost of education plus interest. Twenty-one percent had borrowed $50,000 to $90,000 above that level, and strikingly 44 percent had borrowed $100,000 or more over the cost of attendance plus interest.

The information was presented by Charlotte Hansen, statistical analyst in the AVMA Veterinary Economics Division, during a talk on the "Supply of Educational Services" at the 2018 AVMA Economic Summit, held Oct. 22-23 in Rosemont, Illinois.

Going up

Salaries among graduates also continue to increase. In 2014 dollars, real mean starting salary for 2018 U.S. graduates finding full-time employment prior to graduation (weighted to account for changes in gender, practice type, and region) was $76,633, up from $73,626 in 2017 and $72,187 in 2016. Household incomes have risen, so there's more spending on veterinary services, which has resulted in the increase in starting salaries, Hansen said.

The overall debt-to-income ratio among 2018 graduates was 2.26:1, up from 1.85:1 last year. Hansen added that the inclusion in the data set of the two new veterinary colleges at Midwestern University and Lincoln Memorial University (see story and story) contributed the most to the sharp increase.

Notably, the DIR for graduates of the Caribbean veterinary colleges at Ross University and St. George's University, which have high populations of students from the U.S., differed from the DIR for their colleagues who attended U.S. institutions. However, there was only a 35 to 40 percent response rate from the Caribbean institutions, compared with a 90 percent response rate for the U.S. colleges.

Though the starting salaries hardly differed between U.S. and Caribbean veterinary graduates in 2018, the mean debt for Caribbean veterinary graduates was nearly double that of U.S. graduates—$260,388 in 2018 and $253,734 in 2017. That meant the DIR of new veterinary graduates from Ross and St. George's was 3.37:1 this year. Notably, more than 50 percent of these graduates had a DIR of 4:1 or more. Also, the AVMA mean debt figures include all graduates, even those with zero debt. The mean debt levels of only those graduates with any amount of debt would be much higher.

Much of the information came from the AVMA Senior Survey, conducted each spring among the graduating students of U.S. veterinary colleges accredited by the AVMA Council on Education. The document takes an in-depth look at new-veterinarian incomes, educational debt load, and debt-to-income ratio, among other things.

The 2018 Veterinary Economic Reports are available at

Line chart: Debt and income among new veterinary graduates finding full-time employment - Source: AVMA Senior Surveys, 2001-18
The mean income shown is among those respondents with full-time income—excluding those in internships and residencies. The mean debt shown is among all respondents, including those with zero debt. (Enlarge)

Repayment strategies

The VIN Foundation's student debt expert, Dr. Tony Bartels, spoke at the summit about what students and veterinarians can do to better manage their loan debt. He says a majority of borrowers now have a debt-to-income ratio much greater than 1:1, which does not lend itself to traditional repayment methods that involve borrowers trying to pay back the money as fast as they can. Instead, he recommends veterinarians consider income-driven repayment programs, which set a monthly student loan payment at an amount that is intended to be affordable on the basis of income and family size.

For example, with the Pay As You Earn program, borrowers pay 10 percent of their discretionary income each month. After making 240 monthly payments on qualifying direct loans, any remaining balance is forgiven. Because the forgiven amount is treated as taxable income, Dr. Bartels said, "You just have to plan for the tax at the end, and you can even do that as you're paying off the loan. Put money into an account where you can earn a return on your forgiveness savings."

The VIN Foundation Student Debt Center has a Student Loan Repayment Simulator that helps students and recent graduates figure out the best way to pay off their loans.

"If you pick the right repayment plan sooner than later, this can save you tens of thousands of dollars in the course of repaying," Dr. Bartels said.

He also made the following recommendations for veterinary students to consider:

  • Don't pay interest while in school.
  • Reduce award amounts or return any money borrowed that was not used, which can also decrease the interest and fees associated with borrowing.
  • No more than 10 to 15 percent of your income should go toward repaying student loans.
  • If doing an internship or residency, don't defer loans, but start an income-driven repayment program to avoid further capitalization of interest.
  • Avoid using retirement savings to pay off student loans.

Matthew Salois, PhD, director of the AVMA Veterinary Economics Division, emphasized that educational debt is not an issue for the veterinary profession alone, but a bigger and more complicated societal issue. For context, he said veterinary educational debt accounts for $400 to $500 million compared with the overall $1.5 trillion in educational loan debt in 2018, according to the Federal Reserve. Educational debt is now the second-highest category of consumer debt—behind only mortgage debt—and higher than debt from both credit cards and car loans.

"We often talk about debt in the confines of the veterinary profession, but there is not something inherently wrong with veterinary education; it extends nationally across all disciplines," he said. "There are things we can do as a veterinary profession to address this, but because it's part of a complicated issue, we have to look beyond the profession in order for it to be addressed."

AttendeeTwo attendees
Attendees at the 2018 AVMA Economic Summit, held Oct. 22-23 in Rosemont, Illinois,

Related JAVMA content:

Salaries, debt increase slightly for new graduates (Aug. 1, 2017)