Across all disciplines, educational debt in the U.S. has increased by more than 100% over the past 10 years, according to Federal Reserve Economic Data.
Bridgette Bain, PhD, associate director of analytics in the AVMA Veterinary Economics Division, spoke about educational debt during the session “How Debt is Changing the Face of the Profession” at the virtual American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges’ Annual Conference and Iverson Bell Symposium, March 3-5.
The mean debt among veterinary graduates continues to rise, and those going into private practice typically have the highest debt, Dr. Bain said.
The mean debt accumulated during veterinary school is about $160,000, according to data from the 2020 AVMA Senior Survey published in the April 15 issue of JAVMA. Graduates going into private practice had a mean salary of $90,000, while graduates going into public practice earned less, and graduates going into advanced education earned still less.
Dr. Bain said that, ideally, there shouldn’t be a relationship between debt levels and sector, but there is evidence of this occurring.
How students pay for tuition is also an indicator of educational debt, Dr. Bain said. For example, if students have family paying tuition, the mean debt is significantly less than if the student covers the same amount of tuition through scholarship or savings.
The educational debt of graduates is growing by about $5,800 each year. Also, although a portion of students graduate with no debt, Black students graduate with more than $100,000 more debt, on average, than white graduates. The mean debt for white graduates was $151,174 in 2020, compared with $249,436 for Black graduates.
If the problem of educational debt in veterinary medicine is left unchecked, there is a risk of saturation by those who can afford to attend veterinary school, Dr. Bain said.
Currently, the typical veterinary graduate is a white woman from suburbia, and studies have shown that veterinarians prefer to work and open hospitals or clinics in areas that are similar to where they grew up. If this trend continues, there may be areas across the U.S. where there is a higher density of veterinarians than others, Dr. Bain said. That could have economic implications, she added.
This trend could furthermore lead to a lack of diversity within the profession, Dr. Bain said, not just racially and ethnically but also with respect to practice type.
From 2001-20, 1.1-2.5% of graduates in each veterinary class planned to pursue uniformed services. Graduates who enter the uniformed services typically have the lowest debt and the lowest income.
AVMA data show that the population of students who opt to go into uniformed services has been declining. Over the last few years, Dr. Bain said, the world has been faced with the rapid spread of zoonotic disease, so veterinarians are needed on the front lines combating diseases. The veterinarian is trained to be helpful under these unique conditions.
“We do not want to see a decline in uniformed services because graduates feel they can’t (afford to) accept such a low-paying position,” Dr. Bain said.