Dream of veterinary career deterred by school expense

Student couldn’t justify cost of education

July 7, 2011 (published)
By Edie Lau

Erin O'Neill was halfway through her first year in veterinary school when she concluded that the expense was too great. Photo courtesy Erin O'Neill.
Like so many in the profession, Erin O’Neill wanted to be a veterinarian since she was a child. But one semester into veterinary school, O’Neill came to the conclusion that the dream was an illusion and pulled out.

Why? It cost too much.

An older student with past careers in commercial aviation and finance, O’Neill, 40, paid for veterinary school with her own savings. Watching her bank balance shrink with only a dim promise of return turned out to be an investment she could not rationalize.

“I thought, ‘This does not make sense,’ ” O’Neill said. “I can crunch the numbers every way from here to tomorrow and I cannot make it work at the end of the day that I’m going to be able to invest X amount of money — for many students it costs $250,000 to $300,000 — and be able to recover that.”

O’Neill’s decision to leave veterinary school reflects a growing unease in the veterinary community that the price of admission has become too great for a profession in which average full-time starting salaries for new graduates top out around $71,000 and usually are much lower.

Moreover, students typically borrow money to get through school, which, because of interest, boosts the cost of education that much higher. In 2010, the average veterinary school graduate with debt left school more than $133,000 in the hole.

Adding interest at the current rate of 7.9 percent for federal loans made to students in professional school, the total rises to nearly $193,000 if paid in 10 years; or $305,316 if paid in 25 years, according to a U.S. Department of Education online calculator.

“I love being a vet but, to be honest, if I could give up my degree to wipe out my $230K debt, I would in a heartbeat,” wrote Dr. Darren Wright on a message board of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession. A companion-animal doctor in Arizona, Wright graduated in 2008.

On a different VIN message board, another recent graduate, Dr. Emily Buskey, wrote: “I would not recommend to young people that they pursue this career path at this time! The student-loan debt is crippling, and the debt-salary mismatch is not likely to get better any time soon.” Buskey is a small-animal practitioner in upstate New York who graduated in 2009 with $186,000 in school debt.

“I hope I don’t sound too negative,” Buskey added. “I really love this work and feel privileged to have my job and be part of the veterinary community! Just worried about those coming after me ...”

Buskey grew concerned about money within the first semester of school, by which time she was already $65,000 in debt. She remembers thinking, “I have to go forward because finishing school is the only way I can pay this.”

Like O’Neill, Buskey is in her 40s with a career behind her; she’d been a dairy farmer. The women acknowledge their age means they have fewer years ahead than younger new graduates in which to earn money and retire debts or rebuild savings.

But they’re certainly not the first students to start veterinary school after their 20s. Those who did it a generation ago were in a very different financial environment. Dr. Tom Schott, who entered Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979 after teaching high school biology for 11 years, doesn’t remember money being much of a consideration. As a New York resident, his in-state tuition was $3,500 a year.

He did take school loans, but only because back then, there were no financial restrictions and interest didn’t accrue until nine months after graduation. So Schott banked the money to earn interest, then paid the debt immediately when he finished school. “I think I made $5,000 on it,” he said.

Schott worked for a year as an associate, then started a mobile veterinary clinic in Westchester County, which he ran successfully for more than two decades before retiring. “It certainly made it a lot easier to not have to think about what kind of debt I was going to be saddled with coming out of school,” he said.

O’Neill believes that at her age, an understanding of debt weighs more heavily. “As a 20-something student, I probably would have jumped right in and not looked at it,” she said.

In her 20s, O’Neill didn’t jump into veterinary school after earning an undergraduate degree in biology because she thought her 3.23 grade-point average wouldn’t cut it. Instead, after a chance conversation with a family friend who was a pilot, she pursued aviation. She was accepted by the U.S. Navy as a Naval Flight Officer but ended up entering civilian flight school. After completing her licenses and ratings, she worked as a corporate jet pilot from 1999 to 2005.

In 2005, O’Neill switched gears. As her employer made plans to relocate from Hilton Head, S.C., to Dallas, O’Neill decided to stay on the East Coast and accept a position with a startup company in insurance-premium finance. She worked her way up from a mid-entry-level position to director of operations. The credit-market crash in fall 2008 forced O’Neill to rethink her career path again.

“I needed a backup plan,” O’Neill recounted. “Veterinary school — school in general — had always been on my radar.”

She raised the idea with her employer, who was enthusiastically supportive. “Look, I can’t promise you that we’ll be here tomorrow,” he said. “I would highly recommend that if that’s an option for you, it’s a great choice.”

O’Neill felt she needed to move urgently, but the deadline for applying for the next fall’s admission to veterinary schools in the States had passed. However, the veterinary program at St. George’s University on the Caribbean island of Grenada has a rolling admissions policy and accepts two classes per year. She applied for fall 2009 matriculation and was accepted.

Then O’Neill learned that the veterinary program at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland had opened its applicant pool to international students only — an act that she later interpreted as a sign that Edinburgh, like so many schools, was trying to attract more tuition income by appealing to non-residents. “Their students go to school basically free if they’re from the U.K.,” O’Neill observed. “We’re paying full fare.”

Moreover, Edinburgh's program runs five years. But one thing it offered that St. George’s does not is accreditation by the American Veterinary Medical Association. (Graduates from non-accredited programs who wish to practice in the United States must pass an expensive and cumbersome equivalency examination in addition to the standard licensing exam.) O’Neill applied to Edinburgh and was accepted.

In a foreshadowing of what was to come, O’Neill then had what she called “a mini meltdown” about the expense.

“I’m self-pay,” she explained. “I was not relying on loans. I know some people would say, ‘I wish I could be in that situation!’ But it’s, like, my life savings.”

She consulted two successful entrepreneur friends to ask, “Am I making a ridiculous decision?” Separately, they talked her through her jitters. They discussed the potential of the career to provide good income, and her goal of owning her own practice. She concluded she merely was having cold feet.

O’Neill arrived in Scotland in August 2010. (She had deferred enrollment a year to handle the considerable logistics of moving overseas, including bringing her two Yorkshire terriers.) She adored veterinary school and did well. “I loved the information, lectures, hands-on practicals and camaraderie with my classmates,” O’Neill recalled. “The full dissection of the canine was fascinating. ...”

But two things got her down. One was Scotland’s damp, dreary climate. The other was money. As an international student, O’Neill’s tuition amounted to some $34,000 a year; books, supplies and living costs boosted her expenses to about $70,000.

“Once you start writing checks and everything’s going out and nothing’s coming in, it really hits you on the head,” O’Neill said.

Considering the depressing climate and expense of Edinburgh’s 5-year program, O’Neill decided in January to withdraw. She went home to Virginia with the intention of transferring in the fall to St. George’s. Although tuition there isn't much less, the program at St. George's runs four years, so O'Neill would save half a year of expenses.

During the break in schooling, she got into a conversation with a sister-in-law about her stepdad, who is in his 70s, living alone and beginning to decline in health. The sister-in-law told O’Neill: “He’s waiting for the day that you’re a vet and you have your farm and your barn and your house and he can go live up in the apartment above the barn that you’re going to have.”

At that moment, O’Neill realized that the dream she’d expressed to her family for so long would not happen. “I can’t provide that,” O’Neill thought, as her sister-in-law spoke.

“It really hit home,” she recounted: “I’m going to be in vet school for four more years, and I have to follow a job around ... and it may not be here. That’s where we are with veterinary medicine; that’s where we are with a lot of things. I can’t have it for him, and I can’t have it for me...

“There’s a point in time that you lose the dream and really face reality,” she said. “That was my ‘aha’ moment.”

O’Neill noted that she could have cut the cost of schooling in half by attending school in her home state, but that, she came to believe, was still too much. “For me, it wouldn’t make much difference,” she said.

As a student, O’Neill had boned up not only on medicine but on practice prospects. She knew that veterinarians are fighting to keep clients coming in the doors. She projected that as more veterinarians entered the profession saddled with high educational debt, fewer could afford to buy practices, resulting in greater corporate ownership. And she speculated that if she did ever manage to buy her own clinic, the corporate players would likely outcompete her with lower prices.

The decision to let go of her dream still raw, O’Neill doesn’t know yet what she might pursue next. She agreed to share her experience and perspective in the hope it might spur other aspiring veterinarians to think more analytically about what is for so many an emotional decision.

She had watched with dismay as fellow students borrowed $60,000 to $70,000 a year so they could have enough to live comfortably. “I know it’s real money you’re borrowing. It’s not Monopoly money,” she said. “To have (at the end) $250,000 in debt plus interest, these kids are paying back anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500 a month.”

On Internet forums where students discussed the expense, O’Neill said, many would say they accepted the cost because it enabled them to pursue a livelihood they loved. “My theory is, well, you will love it for a while until it becomes a burden,” she said. “Until you’re choosing: Now you can’t go on vacation because you can’t afford it. You can’t buy yourself a nice dress for a black-tie event because you’re looking at the numbers. You may choose not to have a family because of it.

“I think it’s a very, very serious issue,” she said. “I don’t know what the solution is.”

All the same, O’Neill does not regret having tried veterinary school. On the contrary. “I would have really regretted it if I had not given it a go,” she said. “I had to because it had been a goal of mine for so long.”

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