New Utah veterinary education program wins approval, funding

Plan stirs concerns about a potential oversupply of practitioners

March 11, 2011 (published)
By Edie Lau

Utah students wishing to become veterinarians will be able to stay in their home state for their first two years of training under a controversial $1.7-million plan approved for funding by the Legislature this week.

The bill, HB 57, goes next to Gov. Gary Herbert, who has not stated a position. The plan establishes a professional veterinary school at Utah State University (USU) in partnership with Washington State University (WSU).

The plan provides for up 20 Utah residents plus 10 out-of-state students each year to begin a veterinary degree program at Utah State’s main campus in Logan, then transfer to the well-established veterinary program at WSU for their third and fourth years of schooling. The so-called 2+2 plan enables Utah to offer a veterinary education without the significant expense of setting up a teaching hospital for clinical training.

If enacted, the first class will be admitted in fall 2012. Tuition is proposed to be $18,100 a year for residents and $45,000 a year for non-residents initially, rising by 7 percent each year for at least the next four years. Utah students would be charged in-state tuition rates all four years; the state of Utah would cover for its residents the non-resident tuition premium charged by WSU. Payment of that premium will add $1.3 million to the annual cost of the program, for a total of $3 million a year starting in 2014.

The plan enjoyed broad support in the Legislature and received a unanimous endorsement from the Utah Veterinary Medical Association Board of Directors. However, some practitioners in Utah and elsewhere question whether it is wise to create more slots for veterinary students as signs appear that the supply of veterinarians in some sectors of the market may be overshooting demand.

Currently there are 28 veterinary schools in the United States. Together, their enrollment is about 10,800 and rising. According to an article in the Feb. 1 edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (“Will Veterinary Education Hit a Tipping Point?”), the number of seats for new enrollees grew at a rate of 10.3 percent during the past five years and is projected to continue to grow between 5.7 and 8 percent annually from now through 2015.

The proposed joint program for Utah and Washington is uncommon but not unique. In 2007, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln began a 2+2 program in partnership with Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine. According to the program website, 25 Nebraska students are admitted each year; the inaugural class will graduate from Iowa State this spring.

The University of Arizona at Tucson (UA) sought a similar arrangement with Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine, but severe budget problems in Arizona have put the idea “in the deep freeze” for the foreseeable future, according to Dr. Chuck Sterling, head of UA’s pre-veterinary medicine program.

In Arizona and Utah alike, proponents of in-state programs have cited a desire to address shortages of rural veterinarians, particularly those who doctor livestock. They also wish to give resident students an opportunity to become veterinarians without having to travel out of state and pay out-of-state tuition, which typically is hefty. And they would like to increase the chances that veterinary students will return after graduation to practice in their home state.

“It’s a fairly creative way for states with smaller populations to invest in the profession,” said Dr. Bryan Slinker, dean of the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine in Pullman, Wash.

However, increasing the number of seats for veterinary students is causing consternation among practitioners who worry that the market for the most popular type of veterinary practice — urban companion-animal practice — has reached saturation.

A recent study by Brakke Consulting Inc., the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues and Bayer Animal Health noted that the number of companion-animal veterinarians jumped 48 percent in the decade between 1996-97 and 2006-07, rising from 30,255 to 44,785. The purpose of the study was to examine a national trend in decreasing visits to veterinarians.

Fueling concerns in veterinary circles about workforce size are decisions this week by the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Council on Education to grant full U.S. accreditation to veterinary programs in two foreign schools: Ross University in St. Kitts and National Autonomous University of Mexico. Those programs combined graduate more than 500 new veterinarians each year. Most Ross graduates are Americans who have already been returning to the country to practice. Information on where UNAM graduates seek work was not immediately available.

Utah serves as a microcosm of the concern across the profession. “The idea of dumping tons of new veterinarians into the market every year has terrified a number of my colleagues, both owner and associate alike,” Dr. Robert Myrick, who practices 25 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, told the VIN News Service in an interview by e-mail.

“The idea is that 20 to 30 vets will clearly flood the market, resulting in smaller slices of the pie for the 400 veterinarians in the state of Utah, and that in reality, the majority of these people are going to continue down the pathway of small-animal medicine, not the area of need — in other words, large animal/rural practice,” Myrick said.

He added that he personally finds merit in the plan because it would enable Utah students to become veterinarians for less money than if they had to leave the state. (The average educational debt among the 90 percent of veterinary-school graduates who took school loans was $134,000 in 2010.)

The problem, to Myrick’s thinking, is that 20 to 30 new veterinarians a year is too many. He believes 10 to 15 is more reasonable.

Some are more emphatically critical. “Increasing vet school numbers under the guise of providing large-animal veterinary service to under-served regions is just nuts,” wrote Dr. William Blevins in a message-board post on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession.

Blevins, who is a professor emeritus of diagnostic imaging at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine and a VIN editor and consultant, went on: “The reason (an) area is under-served is because no one can make a living in that region, let alone pay off $100-250K of college debt.”

At the Utah Veterinary Medical Association (UVMA), the board voted unanimously in favor of the plan, but some members are less enthusiastic. In the association’s January/February newsletter, UVMA president Dr. Doug Murphy wrote: “There are some major concerns and some opposition by UVMA members. The Board was in favor of the program because they felt it would benefit the veterinary profession in Utah ... if you have other feelings, please let it be known.”

In an interview, Murphy said that about eight Utah students per year currently graduate from veterinary schools under a program of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education in which the Utah students’ out-of-state tuition premium is paid by the state. He acknowledged that the prospect of more than doubling that number raises compelling questions from some Utah practitioners.

“Number one, does the state really need them?” he said, presenting the questions his colleagues are asking. “Number two, will they really come back to Utah? You’d want them to because it’s Utah money being used for their education, but on the other hand, does Utah really need that many vets?”

The chief sponsor of the bill is Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, a veterinarian who has served in the House of Representatives for six years. Mathis owns a mixed-animal practice in a small eastern Utah town, population 8,300. One of his sons is a veterinarian. Father and son alike earned their DVM degrees at Colorado State University. Unlike the father, the son stayed in Colorado to practice.

Mathis, who has practiced for 30 years, said his motive in carrying the legislation is simple. “I want to provide equal opportunity for Utah students,” he said. “I don’t know the demographics of where there’s a shortage and no shortage. All I know is, it’s a wonderful career and it’s treated me very well. If there are other students who aren’t provided the same opportunity, I want to give them that opportunity.”

He noted wryly that as an established practitioner whose children are grown and educated, the program is not in his personal best interest. “The only thing that comes is competition for me,” Mathis said. “But when is competition a bad thing?”

Mathis said the proposal originated in discussions between Utah State and Washington State for several years before coming to fruition in the Legislature.

Dr. Kenneth L. White, a professor and head of the Department of Animal, Dairy, and Veterinary Sciences at Utah State, said the school would give preference to rural students to address shortage areas but aim overall to attract students in all areas of interest.

“We’ve got shortages in urban areas, as well,” he said, noting that current growth trends bring the state 65,000 new residents a year. “Under current numbers, we have one veterinarian per 6,500 people,” White said. “Just to be able to keep up with the population growth, we need an extra 10 veterinarians a year, and that doesn’t account for the retirements we have each year.”

White acknowledged that some practitioners are concerned about increasing competition. “Does that mean we shut the door? No,” he said.

At Washington State, partnering with a nearby state to provide veterinary education isn’t new. For more than 20 years, WSU had a similar arrangement with Oregon. The alliance ended after Oregon State University created its own 4-year program beginning in 2003.

(WSU also reserves 11 seats a year for Idaho residents, but those students receive all their veterinary education at Washington State, not just the latter half.)

WSU’s Slinker said Utah State solicited WSU, not the other way around, but the timing was right for Washington State. Had the pact with Oregon still been in place, Washington State would have lacked the capacity for more students. Oregon sent 36 students a year to WSU. Class sizes at WSU currently run between 95 and 100, Slinker said.

Slinker said WSU would need to make minor modifications to its surgical teaching space to accommodate the 30 students sent from Utah, but the work would cost less than $100,000, and the added tuition income would cover the expense.
As far as trouble in the marketplace, Slinker said universities must look beyond the moment. “Our graduates are still getting jobs,” he said. “They’re not getting as many offers as they had three years ago. For planning purposes like this, however, you really have to take the long-term view. The pet population is growing. The human population is growing. Utah is one of the fastest-growing states in the country.”

Dr. Michael Lorenz, dean of Oklahoma State, has a similar view. Oklahoma regents in 2008 approved a 2+2 arrangement to provide clinical training to veterinary students from Arizona but the plan stalled due to financial woes in Arizona.

Asked about the wisdom of enlarging veterinary class sizes in the face of a tight small-animal market, Lorenz said: “Veterinary colleges can’t ratchet it up and ratchet it down every two to three years for what somebody perceives to be the demographic for jobs. Prior to this recession, there wasn’t one demographic that wasn’t screaming for more veterinarians, including small-animal ...

“We still don’t have enough veterinarians to go into public health,” Lorenz added. “You just have to be patient and let the marketplace take care of some of that unevenness.”

Dr. Michael Ames, past president of the Arizona Veterinary Medical Association, said advocates of the joint program between Arizona and Oklahoma had hoped to increase the number of veterinarians serving in the state’s rural communities by giving preference to applicants whose backgrounds and interests are consistent with rural practice. He said Arizona is short on rural veterinarians in small- and large-animal practice alike.

“By bringing the program in-house, Arizona controls its own destiny in terms of who gets admitted to veterinary school,” Ames said. “If we want to direct students to rural areas, then, one, we can give preference in the selection process to students from rural areas who’ve shown interest in going back to a rural area. Secondly, there would be an ability for our counties here in Arizona to participate by sponsoring students ... (who) would commit to going back to those rural counties (to work).”

Ames acknowledged that despite the plan to customize student demographics to meet demand areas in veterinary medicine, some small-animal practitioners in Phoenix raised eyebrows over the proposed new program. However, he said, it is not possible for a veterinary school to eliminate training in small-animal medicine. “You still have to meet the ... requirements to be accredited,” he said. “You can’t be a veterinary school that does large-animal or food-animal only.”

While state budget problems have put the proposal in limbo at the University of Arizona, the Arizona Veterinary Medical Association continues to search for ways to carry out the plan. Ames said that Midwestern University, a private, not-for-profit school specializing in health-care education, is considering creating a four-year veterinary program in Glendale, Ariz.

“No absolute commitment, but they are looking at it!” Ames said.

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