An untapped pipeline for veterinary schools

An estimated 17 historically black colleges and universities have preveterinary or related programs, but relatively few students pursue veterinary college
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Updated July 29, 2019

Alexis Roach knows what she wants in life: to pursue a career that involves animals and participate in black culture.

Ms. Roach and feline friend
Alexis Roach, former secretary of the American Preveterinary Medical Association, graduated from North Carolina A&T State University in May. It is the largest public historically black college or university in the U.S. (Courtesy of Alexis Roach)

Roach, former secretary for the American Preveterinary Medical Association, graduated from North Carolina A&T State University in May. She chose that school not only because it has an animal science program, but also because it is one of the historically black colleges and universities in the United States, she said.

"At A&T, we have our research farm unit three minutes from our campus and a laboratory animal research facility within our department building. I wanted a hands-on university, a university that was going to give me the experience that I needed. I also wanted to go to an HBCU," Roach said.

Roach received admissions offers from Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. She was also offered an interview at Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine but decided to attend NC State because the veterinary college offered her a scholarship.

HBCU history

An HBCU is a college or university that was established prior to 1964 with the primary mission of educating black Americans. The institution must also be accredited by a nationally recognized agency or association, as stated in the Higher Education Act of 1965, which expanded federal funding for colleges and universities. There are currently 101 public and private HBCUs in the U.S., according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Tuskegee University is the only HBCU with a veterinary college.

Although HBCUs were originally founded to educate black students, the institutions serve students of all racial backgrounds. HBCUs have suffered from a lack of funding in the past few years, especially public institutions; however, academic leaders agree that the programs are still successful.

"I loved attending my university because I was surrounded by people of the same color, culture, and interests similar to myself," Roach said. "I developed many close friends while at A&T, and we have all pushed each other beyond our limits. We stuck together like a family, and when one of us would fall, we kept encouraging each other to get back up and keep going. I wouldn't change my experience at an HBCU for the world. I learned a lot about myself and people. It is rewarding to see seven of my classmates and myself going to veterinary school this fall," she said.

There are an estimated 17 HBCUs that offer preveterinary or related programs, said Dr. Chandra Williams, university veterinarian and vivarium director at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and a member of the advisory board of trustees for the APVMA. In 2018, 58 students listed an HBCU as their primary institution when they applied to a veterinary school. That is only 0.77% of the overall national applicant pool, according to data from Tony Wynne, director of admissions and recruitment at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. Of those 58 applicants, only 25 matriculated, although another two deferred.

According to data from the AAVMC, the student population at U.S. colleges of veterinary medicine in 2019 was 71.1% white, 11.1% Latino or Hispanic, and 2.8% African American or black.

I'm still meeting people, and I've been out of school for 25 years, that have never met a black veterinarian before.

Dr. Chandra Williams, member, advisory board of trustees, American Preveterinary Medical Association

Roach will begin classes this fall at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. She acknowledges that it will be a challenge going from a predominately black university to an intensive program at a university that is predominantly white.

"I am prepared for this challenge, though. Studying abroad helped me be culturally accepting and let people accept me," said Roach, who studied in Cyprus during her third term.

But the challenge of changing environments isn't top of mind for all HBCU students.

Dr. Bridges with preveterinary students
Dr. Kenneth Newkirk, a large animal clinician at Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine, does a demonstration for preveterinary students. (Photos courtesy of Tuskegee University CVM)

For Dr. Glen Wright, an alumnus of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, an HBCU, and current director of its veterinary technology program, how a student fares when going from an HBCU to a largely white university depends on the student. Dr. Wright said he didn't struggle with the transition when he went to the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, but he was "very aware of the difference in environment and culture."

Prevet students in training
Participants in the college's summer Veterinary Science Training, Education, and Preparation Institute attend demonstrations.

"There is a lot of cultural difference or culture shock when students go from an HBCU—especially a smaller school—to a predominantly white institution. Some are able to transition well, and some aren't," he said. A student who is academically and culturally diverse is likely to fare better when making the transition, added Dr. Wright, who received his veterinary degree in 2006.

Dr. Wright guesses that about 5-10% of preveterinary students at Florida A&M go on to veterinary school. Most of those students attend the University of Florida or Tuskegee University.

Students who do not attend veterinary college go on to a range of places and careers including graduate school, research-related jobs, industry jobs such as at Sanderson Farms, federal jobs, or nonanimal careers, Dr. Wright said.

Fourth-year vet students assist in prevet program
Tuskegee University fourth-year veterinary students assist students in the preveterinary program with large animal demonstrations.

The lack of diversity within the student population may not be the biggest concern.

Instead, it can be a challenge for these students to identify with faculty and staff, Dr. Williams said.

"I hear that they don't recognize themselves (in staff, faculty, and mentors). Students may also have difficulty finding veterinarians that have time or are willing to mentor them. And there are so many career opportunities in veterinary medicine besides companion and large animal practice. I think that's where some students may be at a disadvantage."

Pipeline focus

Many veterinary associations and institutions have focused on pipeline development over the years in an attempt to widen the pool of applicants to veterinary schools.

The AAVMC is working on a national recruitment strategic plan and creating initiatives to assist veterinary schools in pipeline development, specifically around the engagement of kindergarten through 12th-grade students, Wynne said.

However, despite these efforts, the veterinary profession is still considered to be one of the whitest in the nation.

"I'm still meeting people, and I've been out of school for 25 years, that have never met a black veterinarian before," Dr. Williams said. "The (veterinary) schools have to let the (students at) HBCUs know that they are welcoming, supportive, and receptive. There are clearly other veterinary schools besides Tuskegee."

But according to Dr. Williams, while a veterinary college may publicly campaign for a more diverse student population, some academic leaders aren't necessarily following through on that promise.

"I don't think they're trying to recruit," Dr. Williams said. "They may say they are. But if they were, then we would see it in the demographics of the population. I don't think veterinarians are doing enough outreach, or the admission recruiters aren't going out of their way to recruit. But, when we think about it, they don't have to. There's always going to be a steady population of young people that want to be veterinarians—always—from the first time they see their first butterfly, horse, or cat. I think some schools have tried (to recruit), but I think they don't know what to do."

Tuskegee University says it does focus on HBCU pipelines such as Florida A&M University, North Carolina A&T University, Prairie View A&M University, and Delaware State University, in addition to building from its own ranks.

The 2017-18 admission cycle at Tuskegee's veterinary college included 17 students from the university's undergraduate programs; 15 of those applicants received acceptance offers, and 14 attended. For the admission cycle of 2018-19, there were 16 Tuskegee students who applied to the veterinary college, and eight of them received acceptance offers. The veterinary college accepts 65 students per year to the incoming class.

"We are continuing the legacy of Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine to lead in the training of African American veterinarians. We are proud to be the veterinary program that has educated 70% of the African American veterinarians in America," said Dr. Ruby L. Perry, dean of Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Perry attended Jackson State University, an HBCU, as a biology major before attending Tuskegee to earn her veterinary degree in 1977. "We are a mirror of the U.S. population. African Americans and other underserved populations have a place in the veterinary profession and it is our job to educate and train those populations because the profession should be more diverse."

Diversity defined

While race is important in terms of diversity, it is not the only factor that veterinary schools should be looking at when considering what a diverse population is, according to Wynne. An issue with comparing diversity among academic institutions is there is no clear definition of what diversity actually means.

"On the national level, you see all the schools saying we want to help diversify the profession, and if you want to help diversify the profession, you need to diversify your pool, which means you need to diversify your outreach in terms of where you're getting your applicants from," Wynne said.

"I think a lot of schools still feel that it is an ethnic thing, but diversity is not just that, it's deeper than that. There are just so many things that filter into what a diverse population looks like," he added.

Roach said that despite her knowing that diversity on a college campus is important, she decided to attend NC State for many reasons, including the proximity to her home state of Delaware. Roach said that while it will be a challenge, she is excited for the future and prepared for the change.

"There are always going to be challenges," she said.

The following are some of the historically black colleges and universities that offer preveterinary and related programs:

  • Alabama A&M University (Alabama).
  • Alabama State University (Alabama).
  • Alcorn State University (Mississippi).
  • Delaware State University (Delaware).
  • Florida A&M University (Florida).
  • Fort Valley State University (Georgia).
  • Lincoln University (Missouri).
  • North Carolina A&T State University (North Carolina).
  • Prairie View A&M University (Texas).
  • South Carolina State University (South Carolina).
  • Southern University and A&M College (Louisiana).
  • Tennessee State University (Tennessee).
  • Tuskegee University (Alabama).
  • University of Arkansas Pine Bluff (Arkansas).
  • University of Maryland Eastern Shore (Maryland).
  • Virginia State University (Virginia).
  • West Virginia University (West Virginia).

Source: Dr. Chandra Williams

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Dr. Kenneth Newkirk, a large animal clinician, in the caption.

Related JAVMA content:

AAVMC keeps focused on inclusion (May 15, 2019)

Association aims to increase racial diversity in vet medicine (April 01, 2019)

Grant aims to give minorities a boost in whitest profession (Sept. 01, 2015)

The toll it takes to earn a veterinary degree (Dec. 15, 2014)

Tuskegee's diversity legacy continues today (Feb. 15, 2010)