Montana doubles support for veterinary education

Washington-Montana veterinary school partnership won’t boost class size

September 13, 2013 (published)
By Edie Lau

Photo by Henry Moore Jr. / WSU
Beginning next fall, 10 Montana residents a year will be able to earn a DVM degree by attending classes for one year at Montana State University (top), then moving to Washington State University (bottom) to complete their remaining three years of study.
The state of Montana is doubling the number of resident students to whom it provides subsidies for veterinary school.

A new partnership with Washington State University (WSU) College of Veterinary Medicine will enable 10 Montana residents to earn a DVM degree by attending their first year of professional school at Montana State University in Bozeman, then studying at the veterinary college in Pullman, Wash., for the next three years.

The Montana Cooperative Veterinary Medicine Program, as it’s called, begins in the 2014-15 academic year.

At the same time, Montana will continue to support the education of nine veterinary students attending any of four out-of-state programs through the long-established Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) Professional Student Exchange Program, according to Dr. Rebecca Mattix, the pre-veterinary advisor at Montana State. Participating WICHE veterinary schools are at Colorado State University, Oregon State University, University of California, Davis, and Washington State University.

Whether through the new cooperative program with WSU or through WICHE, Montana provides about $30,000 per year per student in support fees to the receiving school.

The Montana-Washington veterinary education program is similar to one started at Utah State University in 2012, with a few differences: Utah is handling the first two years of veterinary training before sending its students to Washington. Involving about 30 students per year, the Utah program is three times the size of Montana’s, and includes slots for out-of-state students.

To accommodate the deal with Utah, the WSU veterinary college bumped up its class size by 21 percent last year — rising to 126 from 104 the year before.

But the Montana alliance will result in no further class expansion in the near term, according to Dr. Bryan Slinker, dean of the WSU veterinary college. Instead, Washington will accept fewer students from other states.

“I haven’t decided on the exact target yet, but we will decrease enrollment in our first-year class in Pullman compared with what we have normally done,” Slinker said in an interview with the VIN News Service this week. “That way, when the 10 come over from Montana, we’re about the same size.”

Arrangements such as Montana and Utah have with Washington are a way for states without veterinary schools to provide veterinary training to residents without having to build hospitals for clinical training, an expensive investment.

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln and Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine started a joint program in 2007. A partnership between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences currently is under discussion.

Whether such arrangements increase the overall output of veterinarians is of interest to many in the profession due to worries about a possible surplus of practitioners.

The concerns are fanned particularly by plans for new veterinary schools. Two programs are scheduled to open in fall 2014 — at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee and Midwestern University in Arizona — bringing to 30 the number of veterinary schools in the United States. (Another three veterinary schools attended largely by American students are located in the Caribbean.)
WSU’s Dean Slinker said he’s aware that workforce and class sizes are a sensitive topic in the veterinary community.

“I’m not anxious to add to the workforce issue right now with another increase in class size but in five years it could look totally different,” he said. “… I’m fairly bullish on things. I understand the market’s soft right now but I also think there’s potential” for opportunities for more veterinarians in the future.

He suggested that enlarging the class size at WSU is a possibility down the road, though not immediately.

The first order of business is to successfully absorb the first class of Utah students, who arrive in Washington next fall, Slinker said: “I want to make sure everything’s working well for that before we contemplate an increase in class size.”

From the perspective of the receiving veterinary school, direct-access partnerships are more stable and allow for better planning and budgeting than looser arrangements such as WICHE, according to Slinker. That’s because legislatures in participating states may at any time reduce funding. During the past 25 years, the number of veterinary students supported by WICHE has declined by more than half, from 100-plus per year to about 43 currently, he said.

Adding to the unpredictability for participating veterinary programs, WICHE students have four schools to choose from.

“I never know how many students I’m getting,” Slinker said. “Three years ago, we got 27. Two years ago, it was seven. That’s a big swing in my budget. This current class, we have nine.”

Overall, WSU is not lacking for applicants. For the current school year, the veterinary college received 1,169 applications and admitted 133. (The number of applicants doesn’t equal the number of students who would accept an admissions offer; each student typically applies to several schools.)

Students attending through direct-access programs and WICHE are more lucrative for WSU than other out-of-state students because the college receives annual support fees from the students’ home states. The students pay the equivalent of resident tuition, while their states add what amounts to the non-resident premium for the duration of their studies.

Regular non-resident students may establish residency after one year, Slinker said. That means an out-of-state student would pay non-resident tuition — currently $54,464 — for only one year. Resident tuition this year is $22,352. Including fees, books and supplies, room and board, transportation and miscellaneous expenses, the cost of attending veterinary school at WSU this year is estimated at $40,166 for residents and $72,278 for non-residents.

For Montana’s part, the partnership with WSU provides stability as well as influence on which of its residents enters veterinary school with state support, said Mattix, a teaching professor in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Montana State University who was instrumental in the development of the direct-access arrangement.

Under WICHE, Mattix said, receiving schools decide admissions with minimal input from sending states. Under the cooperative program, Montana and Washington will make the decision jointly.

A Montana State University news service article about the new veterinary education program cited a shortage of livestock veterinarians in the state and the impending retirement of more than half of veterinarians now in large animal practice.

Whether a shortage of large animal veterinarians exists nationally, where and why is another subject of debate in veterinary circles. Mattix, who has studied the issue in Montana, said, “We have a crisis in our state. There is no doubt about it.”

Montana State Veterinarian Dr. Martin Zaluski agrees that almost all regions of the state are underserved. He is hopeful that establishing a veterinary education program in Montana will help ease the shortage by establishing ties for residents with an interest in veterinary medicine to their state.

“I think it helps having them start their education here and not necessarily farm them out immediately out of state where we’re less likely to get them back,” Zaluski said.

Mattix said the program provides an opportunity to expose students during their education to veterinary work in the state. “When you get into your senior year, you do practice rotations,” she said. “Now we can enroll our local practices and recruit senior students to learn about Montana veterinary medicine.”

But when asked whether the Montana-Washington program would give preference to students expressing an interest in large or mixed animal practice, or having a rural background, Mattix replied: “We are interested in selecting the best, brightest, most qualified students, and that’s where it ends, period. We’re not going to take somebody who is less qualified just because they came from a rural background.

“All things being equal?” she added. “That will be an interesting discussion amongst members of the admissions committee.”

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