The challenge of meeting ever-growing global food requirements, while protecting public health and animal welfare, means greater need for food-animal veterinarians. However, the dream of becoming a veterinarian has become less attainable due to the rising cost of education.
While employment opportunities remain abundant, the number of applicants per vet-school seat has declined in recent years, creating concern that financial issues eventually could contribute to a shortage of DVM graduates.
Nationally, the average debt for DVM graduates is around $135,000, and tuition continues to increase while starting salaries remain relatively flat. New grads, on average, enter the profession owing about double their annual salary.
To address the issue, Michigan State University, in partnership with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC), recently hosted a summit titled “Fix the Debt: Our Future, Our Responsibility.”
During the working sessions, 170 participants brainstormed on several strategies for easing the student-debt burden.
· Less time in school: Early admission into a DVM program, with just two years of undergraduate work, could reduce tuition-paying years students while increasing earning years.
· More scholarship money: The mean amount of scholarship money available per veterinary student in 2014-2015 was around $2,500 according to the AAVMC, and only about 46.5% of students received scholarships. Participants favored developing a national campaign to increase scholarship funds, with financial support from clients, industry and alumni.
· Career and financial counseling for veterinary students: More business planning in school, such as preparing for practice ownership, could help graduates reduce debt and boost their incomes.
· Government action: The veterinary community should advocate and lobby at the national level for legislation to provide students with more flexible and lower-cost loan options.
Currently, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) administers the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP), which pays up to $25,000 each year in debt relief for eligible veterinarians who agree to serve in shortage areas. The program is limited though. For 2016, the agency designated $4.4 million in funds for the VMLR, and in fiscal year 2015, the program received 137 applicants and made 49 awards.
Acknowledging the political pressures to cut spending, state governments also should recognize the importance of veterinary services in supporting their agricultural economy.
Livestock producers might also need to step up and fund grants or scholarships through their state and national associations to help veterinary students. However it is done, we need to find ways to keep a career in food-animal veterinary medicine accessible, attractive and financially viable for future classes of promising students who dream of doing what you do.