New York Times article rocks veterinary profession

Crises aired on national stage generate mixed reactions

March 18, 2013 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Two weeks of town hall-style meetings, internal memos, press statements and counterarguments have veterinarians across the country focused on one ominous prediction:      

The veterinary profession might be headed toward economic meltdown.      

Debate about the profession’s tenuous future — brewing for years — has reached a fever pitch since the Feb. 24 New York Times article “High debt and falling demand trap new vets.”

The story depicts a profession bogged down by exorbitant educational costs, a looming oversupply of practitioners and the public’s declining demand for pet health care.      

Now, amid groans of dismay are some sighs of relief. With the profession’s faltering health aired on a national stage, leaders are uniting in the notion that problems exist and must be addressed in order to maintain the profession’s viability.       

Brakke Consulting, a management consulting firm known for its work in the veterinary profession, praised the Times for its coverage.   

"The article seems to have increased the awareness for the need of further discussion and understanding of the issues involved in veterinary education," said a March 15 newsletter from Brakke. "The dialog cannot begin too soon for the benefit of those thinking of a career in veterinary medicine." 

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) issued an open letter to its 80,000-plus members.   

“Unfortunately, none of the issues mentioned in the Times article are news to us — and they’re probably not news to you, either,” the AVMA said. “Like you, we are interested in assuring the sustainability of the veterinary profession, and we fully understand the need for proactive measures to improve the well-being of veterinarians and the continued quality of veterinary education and veterinary care in the United States.”      

Outright acknowledgment of the profession’s struggles — greater competition for jobs and six-figure student loan debt — is relatively new for the AVMA, a membership group that once joined other veterinary associations, the federal government and academia in asserting that the nation faced dire shortages of veterinarians within the next decade. Based on that premise, several new veterinary schools are emerging to feed markets that many now believe are oversaturated. Reliable supply and demand data are elusive.     

All the while, veterinary students are going deeper in debt as deans from many of the nation’s 28 accredited veterinary programs support raising tuition and increasing class sizes to offset rising costs and deep cuts in state support.      

Mean educational debt for the 90 percent of veterinary graduates who borrow to fund their education was more than $150,000 in 2012, an AVMA survey reports, and more than 47 percent of those polled had accrued debt in excess of that. At the same time, new veterinarians — including those in internships and residencies — earned average starting salaries of $45,575 in 2012, down 3 percent from 2011. Excluding intern and resident pay, the average starting salary rises to $65,404, a 1.6 percent drop from the previous year.    

In tangible terms, that means new veterinarians face monthly student loan bills the size of mortgage payments and salaries barely large enough to cover them. Government-run debt assistance options such as Income-Based Repayment allow borrowers to lower their monthly loan obligations. However, for various reasons, adoption of these programs has lagged behind expectations.

Kristen Britton, a veterinary student who’s graduating in May from Washington State University, wants to see more action and less talking when it comes to addressing the profession’s dismal debt-to-income ratio.      

“It was good to see an article aimed towards the general public on what veterinarians encounter, as it raises awareness of the situation,” she said of the New York Times’ coverage. “For veterinarians and veterinary students, it is not new news.”      

That sentiment is echoed on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession, where veterinarians say they’ve been suffering — going out of business and struggling to find work.     

More than 400 posts have amassed on VIN since in response to the Times article.  

“It's about time someone told the truth,” Dr. Thyra Walker wrote in a VIN discussion.      

Dr. Warren Kaplan, a practitioner in Merrick, N.Y., characterized the coverage as “the best comprehensive article I've read on the subject.” He hopes the stark reality of what it takes to become a veterinarian might serve as a warning to up-and-comers.        

“When one sees the prospect of living from hand-to-mouth and paycheck-to-paycheck for virtually their entire career, ‘love of the job’ starts to fade pretty damn fast,” Kaplan wrote.      

That’s not what Lauren Peterson, a third-year veterinary student at Louisiana State University, wants to hear. In a letter she wrote to the Times, Peterson said her view of the profession has changed since embarking on her veterinary career.      

“The article shed light on a subject that’s hugely overlooked and underreported,” she said. “Before I applied to veterinary school, it was my understanding that there was a lack of veterinarians, especially in large animal practice. Now I face the challenge of paying off student debt when jobs are few and far between.”      

Dr. Andrea Mayberry of Grove City, Ohio, laments the changing landscape of pet health care.       

“… More pet owners want low-cost, online, do-it-yourself medicine for their pets,” she wrote in a letter to the Times. “Sometimes I foresee the field becoming a trade rather than a profession.”      

Sour facts or sugarcoated numbers?     

In the halls of academia, damage control is in full swing.        

Since the Times article’s publication, academic leaders have faced direct questions from students and alumni, some accusing leaders of ignoring the high costs borne by students in the face of sinking starting salaries and an outdated notion that the United States needs more veterinarians, especially in rural areas.       

Veterinary colleges at Oregon State University, the University of Minnesota and The Ohio State University have hosted meetings to try to quell fear among students, many of whom already are steeped in educational debt.       

At the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine (UC Davis), Dean Michael D. Lairmore posted a statement on the school website titled "DVM — a valuable investment," in response to the Times article.

"... Employment rates continue to be very high," Lairmore said, citing survey information from the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) that "showed that at least six months post-graduation, 98.4 percent of 2011 graduates and 97.7 percent of 2012 graduates were employed or educationally engaged, in the field of veterinary medicine."  

(The AAVMC's survey drew responses from approximately 70 percent of all 2011 veterinary graduates in the United States and 67 percent of the 2012 graduating class. Veterinarians entering internships and residencies are rolled into the employment statistics and made up 25 percent of the respondents in 2011, and 29 percent in 2012.)  

The national recession and economic downturn, Lairmore said, has created a "perfect storm" for higher education.     

“In this case, veterinary schools have experienced severe budget cuts and are under pressure to increase enrollments as a means of generating more funding support for the schools to mitigate reductions," he said. "Our students are taking on more debt in response to higher tuition and fees, a response to the sharp decline in state funding."      

The employment rate for UC Davis students, he said, is 98 percent. (Lairmore's employment figures include students who entered residencies and internships. In 2012, nearly 48 percent of 123 students seeking jobs entered internships, which typically provide wages far lower than salaries offered by private practices.) The average educational indebtedness of Davis veterinary students is $136,894, nearly $15,000 below the national average, Lairmore said in his statement.

Still, $136,984 is quite a jump from years prior. Educational loan debt for veterinary students graduating from UC Davis in 2011 averaged $118,772. In 2001, it averaged $53,451.

Ross University, a Caribbean-based veterinary school heavily featured in the Times article for its high tuition costs, also issued a public response. It blamed the decline in demand for veterinary services on the “weak economic climate” but said that a full turnaround is expected.      

“In the long term, we expect to see opportunities for business growth in this sector, with greater emphasis being placed on preventative medicine and pet wellness services,” the statement read.       

Ross students, the statement added, enter the $51,708- to $64,536-a-year veterinary school with their eyes open and are counseled about their debt, which for some exceeds $300,000 by the time they graduate. Additionally, a 2012 survey by Ross found that the veterinary school’s new graduates earned, on average, $71,000 a year — at least $5,000 more than the national average.    

The Times article “raises valid questions about veterinary education, particularly the significant financial burden that many students must assume in order to pursue their dream to become a veterinarian,” the Ross statement acknowledged.       

AAVMC: Problems overstated      

The AAVMC — a membership body representing accredited veterinary schools — echoes Ross’ assertion that exploring how to tackle the debt-to-income ratios of veterinarians is a worthy endeavor.       

At the same time, things aren't quite as bad as depicted in the article, AAVMC leaders contend.       

In a public letter, AAVMC President Dr. Deborah Kochevar said the Times low-balled starting salaries and featured schools with the highest tuitions, painting a skewed picture of the profession’s debt-to-income imbalance.     

Pointing to the AAVMC survey data cited by Lairmore at UC Davis — that greater than 97 percent of graduates in 2011 and 2012 responding to a new survey reported finding jobs at least six months post graduation — Kochevar said: “That’s an impressive employment rate by any standard, and one that contrasts sharply with the dire picture presented in the article — and the nation’s 7.9 percent unemployment rate."      

Kochevar, who also is dean of Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Massachusetts, explained that tuitions are rising as a result of budget reductions; state governments collectively cut $104 million from veterinary colleges between 2010 and 2012.     

“The cost of a veterinary medical education is high and veterinarians’ salaries should be higher,” she wrote. “Walk into one of our nation’s colleges of veterinary medicine, and you’ll see it’s not much different than a human medical school ... Training medical professionals in multidisciplinary learning laboratories to provide the quality of care our society deserves is not cheap.”      

Veterinary education at Tufts, for example, costs $41,062 a year for Massachusetts residents. All other students pay $44,346 a year to enter the program.     

Kochevar added that although economic times might be tough, “it is short-sighted to disregard a profession that is cited as among the most respected in the health sector and that provides life-long career satisfaction for most of its members.”      

She advised those scrutinizing the profession to consider only “objective and balanced information, so that we do not deter or discourage talented students.”       

Veterinary bubble     

Dr. James Wilson, a veterinarian and lawyer who has spent years analyzing the debt-to-income of new veterinarians, rejects the idea that the Times article exaggerated the profession's predicament.      

Strapping six-figure student debt on the backs of students, many of whom earn $70,000 a year or less during their first working years, is a trend that’s fed by naïve borrowers and easy access to government-issued student loans. The combination has allowed tuition to skyrocket with abandon, he said.       

With new veterinary colleges emerging and class sizes growing at existing schools, the earning potential of new graduates is threatened by greater competition for jobs, Wilson explained. There isn’t room in the market for an influx of veterinarians — especially those who’ve spent $40,000-plus a year to become a DVM and need paychecks large enough to meet $1,600 or more in monthly student-loan payments.      

“The federal Direct Loan programs with open spigots have led to a bubble in education just as it did with the housing industry,” Wilson said by email. “The only treatment I see is to reduce the flow from the spigot.”      

Limiting the size of loans to student borrowers isn’t widely discussed among leaders in the veterinary profession even as Wilson and others warn of a looming veterinary surplus, flagging job market, unchecked tuition hikes and a generation of veterinarians hobbled by debt.       

“Nobody thinks about the tax implications of extending student loans to people who might be unable to pay them back,” Wilson said.       

Debt — a dream-killer      

Dr. Heather Burrowes, a practitioner in Albany, N.Y., racked up $180,000 in student loan debt, most of which was accumulated during her years at Cornell University’s veterinary college.       

She didn’t realize the weight of her loans until her third or fourth year in veterinary school. By then, it was too late to turn back.       

“You’re told your whole life to ‘follow your dreams and just sacrifice and deal with the consequences,’ but you are not told and could not have known until it was too late that the sacrifices could never be enough,” she wrote on VIN. “I’m doing the best I can …”          

Would-be veterinarians should be practical, advises Dr. Fred Gringrich. The mixed animal practitioner from rural Ohio says it doesn't make sense to become a veterinarian if it requires taking on enormous educational debt to pay for it.     

“If you are intelligent enough to be a veterinarian, you should be able to figure out some basic finances," he wrote on VIN.     

Gingrich added that he never tells anyone to follow their dreams.     

"That is actually horrible advice," he said. "I want to be a rock and roll lead guitarist for a famous band, but it is never going to happen.”       




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