A few months before I wrote my first major article on vet school debt for Student Loan Planner, over 180 people came together for the AAVMC Fix the Debt Summit on the vet school debt crisis facing the profession. I realized a few weeks back that it had been two years since this landmark event occurred. I wondered to myself, what the heck has actually been accomplished?
Of course, it’s heartwarming to see so many key stakeholders take student debt in the veterinary profession seriously. Let me be clear that I don’t think any of the leaders of vet schools or major institutions like the AAVMC or AVMA are bad people.
I just think they’re operating under a system with some of the worst economic incentives ever created. It’s why most vet schools could blow up your personal finances if you decide to become a veterinarian these days.
The AAVMC Fix the Debt Summit resulted in 10 key recommendations. Is significant progress being made, or is the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges just blowing hot air?
What Are the 10 Fix the Debt Veterinary Student Debt Recommendations?
Here are the 10 suggestions the blue ribbon summit came up with to lower the debt to income ratio in the veterinary profession.
• Local and national Scholarships
• Integrating professional skills in the curriculum
• Reducing the DVM program to 5 to 6 years with pre-vet curricula in undergrad
• On-boarding in the workplace for new graduates
• Increase use of preventative medicine as a source of new revenue for new grads
• Veterinary career awareness
• Improving student financial literacy
• Teaching entrepreneurship and practice ownership
• Advocating to the government
• Lowering the cost of borrowing for student debt
The sad part? All of these bullet points are not going to make a lick of difference in lowering the debt to income ratio of veterinarians. Let me explain why.
Local and National Scholarships: Avoiding Responsibility
If I was a prospective donor, why would I make a donation to universities that show 0 cost restraint? UC Davis figured out how to get folks to donate some money to make their $500 million expansion possible, so perhaps I underestimate university fundraising prowess.
However, asking other rich people to pay for the ever increasing cost of tuition at vet schools is a dodge. It avoids universities asking the hard questions such as, “Is this program necessary? Should we cut faculty? Do we need to increase class sizes?” etc.
Integrating Professional Skills in Curriculum: I Sure Hope So
I’m not a vet and am not qualified to discuss what should or shouldn’t be in a vet school curriculum. That said, if you spend four years learning to be a veterinarian and the school doesn’t prepare you for actually being one in the real world, that’s pretty terrifying.
To me, that goal sounded tautological.
Reducing Length of Vet School: Universities Never Want to Talk About their Cut
In other fields such as pharmacy, schools have integrated seven-year programs to shorten the length of training. Amusingly, these same schools often have some of the higher costs. Rather than being in the interest of students, I believe shortened professional training programs when they happen all at one institution serve the school more than the student.
I’ve never seen a vet school dean talk about shortening vet school itself from four years to three. Perhaps there could be a two-year master’s program that would be an intermediate step between a vet and a vet technician.
I’m spouting crazy talk I realize. I just think it’s sadly hilarious that deans only want to talk about what doesn’t affect the finances of their own institutions. Shortening undergrad to two years? Yay!
Shorten the tuition revenue I receive from the DVM? Noooooo!!!
Onboarding in the Workplace for New Grads: Something that Happens Anyway
I don’t really know what this means, but it seems kind of obvious that this happens naturally.
You get hired at a big corporate vet practice and it takes time to get you up to speed. Not sure how this would have any positive impact on vet school debt.
Convincing the Public to Use Preventative Medicine to Increase Vet School Salaries
Of the 10 recommendations, this one might admittedly be my favorite in that it could help some. Anything that gets the public to use vet care more would be a positive for new grads.
However, I think with the huge monopolization going on in the vet industry by Mars, the primary benefit of increasing revenue in the profession would go to them.
The goal of the summit was to reduce debt to income ratios. Increasing incomes is certainly a way to do this. The issue is that it still carries on the theme of the decision makers wanting to avoid talk of the cost.
Veterinary Career Awareness: Not Helping with Cost
Making people aware of their options in the vet career does not help reduce the cost of attendance for a DVM. It might help veterinarians realize they can benefit from the PSLF program with a career in the Food Safety and Inspection Service. However, does not help with the cost of tuition.
If Student Financial Literacy Got Too Good, Vet Schools Would be in Trouble
I admire the Fix the Debt Initiative for wanting to improve the financial acumen of vet students and new grads. Unfortunately, if the summit did too good of a job, then the number of people who want to be veterinarians would likely fall 50% or more.
Veterinary medicine 30 years ago was a career that you had a decent chance of paying down your loans, owning your own private practice, and having a financially successful retirement.
Now one company owns a huge percentage of the entire profession, the cost of the degree has skyrocketed, and retirement security is definitely worse than it used to be. After all, many vets do not even own their own private practices anymore because private equity will pay more than they can afford for practice assets.
Encouraging Veterinarians to Own a Private Practice: Helpful but Not Addressing the Problem
Maybe you’re noticing the trend by now. Yes, it would be great for vets to buy private practices. You could reach out to Live Oak Bank and take advantage of the Student Loan Planner referral deal (contact firstname.lastname@example.org to see what they can do for you). You’ll probably be richer long-term from doing it.
That said, practice ownership has been a thing for many, many years. Unfortunately, the trend of veterinarians owning their own business has been declining for a while now. Giant corporations have taken over many of the successful independent practices in the country.
I can’t blame the older doctors selling. Would you want to accept a price 50% lower than what the big company could offer you just to keep your practice in the hands of a young DVM?
In the dental profession, some states have laws in place to prevent non-dentists from owning and operating so many private practices. The lobby for dentistry is much stronger than the lobby for veterinarians from what I’ve seen.
It’s a great idea to teach veterinarians about entrepreneurship, but it’s not helping fix the debt problem.
Advocating to the Government: Veterinarians Are Always Getting Screwed Over
Tell me why a physician working at a non-profit hospital should get tax-free loan forgiveness after 10 years of payments, but a veterinarian needs to pay for 20-25 years and owe taxes on the forgiven balance?
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, passed in 2007, completely left veterinarians out in the cold. I don’t know if the AVMA lobbied for the inclusion of veterinarians or not, but regardless they were not successful.
Suggesting advocating to government decision makers is a great step. The problem is that every previous effort has failed miserably.
Lowering the Cost of Borrowing: Not the Problem
Does it stink that borrowing to become a veterinarian comes with 6% to 8% interest rates? The cost of student loans is definitely very high. All things equal, lower interest rates would help.
The part that makes my blood boil is looking at this cost of attendance estimate from Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. An in-state graduate would come out owing over $200,000 with a 0% interest rate!!!
At the AAVMC Fix the Debt Summit, the Dean of MSU had some words to say about what he believes is causing the crisis:
“Make no mistake—the single biggest issue here is the decrease in public funding for higher education,” said Dr. John Baker, dean of the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine. “As a profession, we need to address this, and advocate on a state and federal level for increased funding for higher education.”
I do not deny that declining support for public higher education institutions led to some tuition increases in the past 10 years. However, to suggest that the single biggest issue is public funding is ridiculous.
Public Funding for Higher Education Has Been Going Up a Lot in the Past Few Years
I examined the report of the Michigan Senate for Michigan State University funding the past few years. The support has increased almost $20 million since 2015-2016 when the Fix the Debt summit occurred.
Based on these numbers, one would assume that some of the lost appropriations are being made up and the school took it easy on tuition for a couple of years.
Not true. Michigan State raised the cost of tuition from $29,804 to $31,008 over just 2 years.
If they are recouping their losses during the recession from lost appropriations, they sure are taking a long time to do it.
How Much Does the AVMA and AAVMC Care About Student Debt?
Again, I believe the people running the institutions in veterinary medicine are decent people. I just think that it’s natural to get defensive when you’re the source of a problem. It’s natural to want to deflect blame and say it’s someone else’s fault. I sure do that when I leave dishes in the sink or my dirty clothes outside the hamper. I really want it to not be my fault, but it really is.
While there is a lot of blame to go around with vet school debt, the primary culprits are the universities themselves. I’ve had conversations with folks in high places in the profession. The goal is to keep the research machine going, maintain the prestige of the college, and keep star faculty.
The incentives do not at all reward a dean for cutting costs. In fact, that could cost a dean his or her job thanks to pressures from above in the President and Provost offices.
The AVMA and AAVMC want to lower the debt in the profession without doing any of the unpleasant soul searching to get there in my opinion.
What Has Happened Since the AAVMC Fix the Debt Summit?
There is now a “new framework” in place with a different scope. Translation: we failed.
I even searched the new website for the new name of Fix the Debt: the Vet Debt Initiative. Here’s what I found:
Seems like the AAVMC really cares, “page not found” for their website focused on student debt
The AVMA has a website called myvetlife that’s at least not an embarrassing 404 error.
According to the AVMA, the “interest has faded” from the Fix the Debt summit.
Also, the meeting’s goal of reducing the debt to income ratio from 2:1 to 1.4:1 has also been abandoned.
Essentially, key stakeholders seem to be saying, “screw it. We know this thing is going to blow up one day and we’re abdicating responsibility for trying to be a part of the solution.”
They’ll never say that, and I probably won’t get a lot of invitations to speak at vet schools, but speaking truth to power costs you and I’m willing to bear the cost.
If you do have a bunch of vet school debt, of course, our main business is helping veterinarians like you figure out a plan to deal with it. We’ve advised on almost $60 million of vet school student debt as I write this, and we’d love to help you.
Do you think Fix the Debt was a failure? Where should the focus be to reduce the cost of vet school? Comment below!