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A Ross University advertisement touts the need for more veterinarians — a claim some practitioners find questionable.
"The need for veterinarians is increasing. Start your application today."
That statement is part of a DeVry Medical International email to recruit students for its veterinary school at Ross University in the Caribbean. It continues, "By 2022, veterinary employment is expected to grow 12 percent, increasing the need for private practice veterinarians as well as researchers…"
Plucked from a 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report, the forecast relates to overall economic growth for the U.S. market. Students are the ad’s target audience, and veterinarians in the workforce are countering with a message of their own: Buyer beware.
"… Take off the rose-colored glasses, do your homework first, don't believe everything you read, etc.," said Dr. Trae Cutchin, a practitioner in Flowery Branch, Georgia, who joined colleagues in a discussion about the ad on the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession.
DeVry’s ad has met an icy reception from practitioners who believe such claims are disingenuous, considering that many veterinarians are feeling squeezed by competition, low starting salaries and student loan debt in the six figures.
"It’s a sales pitch," said Dr. Chiara Switzer, a practitioner in Ontario, Canada, in the VIN discussion. "They say all kinds of things that aren’t generally considered true to those in the know."
Dr. Elaine Watson, former dean of Ross’s veterinary school, was unaware of the ad when queried earlier this month by the VIN News Service. "This is the first I’ve seen of this," she stated by email.
Days later, Watson left the program to "pursue other professional opportunities," and Dr. Guy St. Jean was named interim dean. He previously worked as the veterinary school’s associate dean of student and alumni affairs.
Watson could not be reached for comment about her exit.
Advertising isn't limited to Ross's veterinary school, especially as veterinary programs add seats and new schools emerge. The University of Arizona (UA) aimed to open a veterinary college this fall but postponed plans when the AVMA's accrediting body did not schedule its evaluation of the program until next January.
Officials now plan to admit the inaugural class in August 2016, two years afer Midwestern University opened its veterinary college doors in Glendale, 127 miles east of UA's campus in Tucson.
"Arizona needs more veterinarians," the UA website states. "The need is particularly acute in communities outside Maricopa County, especially for large-animal practices. The tribal nations also have been short of veterinarians for several years."
Whether pockets of the country short on veterinary care can financially support a practitioner is debatable.
What's clear is that numbers of veterinarians are on an upswing. According to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC), 12,395 students are enrolled this year in veterinary colleges accredited in the United States, up 27 percent in the past decade.
AAVMC trend lines also reveal that 3,226 new veterinarians are expected to graduate in 2018, with another 644 U.S. citizens graduating from AAVMC-member institutions such as Ross University, a private institution in the Caribbean.
Ten years ago, 2,263 veterinarians graduated from programs in the United States; the AAVMC did not tally numbers of Americans graduating with a veterinary degree from programs in the Caribbean or elsewhere.
AVMA economists say the average debt for a student graduating from veterinary school in 2014 is $135,000 — a calculation that includes the 12 percent of students who didn't have to finance their education. Omit those with no student loan debt and add what's borrowed for undergraduate degrees as well as accrued interest, and the average tab for new veterinarians looks more like $180,000 to $200,000.
Students at Ross pay $200,000 in total tuition for the veterinary medical program, not including living expenses. According to the AVMA, median student debt at Ross was more than $280,000 in 2014, and the mean income of its graduates was $67,000.
"As the debt-to-income ratio continues to increase for new graduates, veterinarians' lifestyle satisfaction will be reduced, the demand for veterinary education will decline and filling the expensive seats at veterinary colleges will become more difficult,” an AVMA economics report recently predicted.
An AVMA video posted Sunday on YouTube warns potential students about the educational debt they'd likely take on to become a veterinarian, while at the same time speaking highly of the profession and those called to pursue veterinary medicine as a career.
Paying back student loans, however, can be daunting: "In a survey of 100 recent vet school grads, 52 percent said that they wouldn't do it again because of their financial situation afterward," the video states. "That's more than half of the people looking at that amount they owe and the amount they make and going NOPE! NOPE! NOPE! I'm not doing that again."
Overall, starting salaries are in the range of $70,000 a year, the AVMA said. Given the debt-to-income disparity, telling students the market is ripe for more veterinarians is self-serving, VIN members contend.
"This is a sad reality in our times," added Dr. Bree Montana of Tahoe Vista, California. "With vet schools increasing class sizes, new schools opening … there will be increased pressure to fill those seats."
Once more veterinary students graduate, AVMA economists predict the job market can absorb them. Any excess capacity — or veterinarians not working to their potential — can be resolved without slowing the growth of veterinary education, AVMA economist Michael Dicks has stated. In a series of economic reports, AVMA economists pointed to untapped markets for veterinary medicine, including the millions of dogs and cats that aren’t receiving health care. Another is in public health, where veterinarians could stave off the spread of infectious diseases.
"Zoonotic diseases and their damage in the human population is on the rise, and there are numerous other needs for veterinary services that are unmet," an AVMA report said. "These facts make it difficult to argue that supply of veterinary services is sufficient to meet society’s need for these veterinary services."
Critics counter that identifying a need doesn't mean it can support well-paying jobs, especially in rural America. Anecdotally, veterinarians have reported having to compete with physicians and other similarly educated professionals for work in public health. Urging more pet owners to seek veterinary care — especially if they can't afford it — is an uphill battle.
Meanwhile, veterinary medicine remains a coveted career choice for many. AAVMC figures reveal that applications to veterinary colleges aren’t slowing despite the high costs of education.
The trend is the same at Ross, where Jodi Peeler with DeVry communications stated that applications "remain steady."
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.