Accreditation hangup delays veterinary college opening

University of Arizona: 'We have people beating down our doors to come in'

June 23, 2016 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Image courtesy of the University of Arizona
This artistic rendering shows the Veterinary Clinical Skills Training Facility in Oro Valley, six miles north of Tucson, where UA veterinary students will receive most of their preclinical and clinical training. Leaders aim to drive down structural costs by renovating pre-existing buildings, including 30,000-square-feet of biomedical space. "We are cutting costs without cutting our investment in education," said Dr. Shane Burgess, dean of the program.

First it was 2015. Then 2016. Now the University of Arizona says it won’t admit an inaugural class of veterinary students until fall 2017. 

The holdup is U.S. accreditation, which in veterinary medicine is awarded by the Council on Education, a 20-member volunteer body under the American Veterinary Medical Association. 

The veterinary school, which would be the nation’s 31st program, wants a letter of reasonable assurance from the COE before opening its doors. Reasonable assurance is a first step toward full accreditation, indicating that a developing program has a realistic plan for complying with COE standards. 

UA hosted an accreditation site visit in January; its bid for reasonable assurance was on the COE’s March agenda. However, no mention of UA was made in a wrap-up of the COE’s meeting, published in April. AVMA and COE officials have not explained their silence, apart from stating that the site team’s report remains under review, and any decision will be posted on the AVMA’s website within 30 days of a final decision. 

Dr. Shane Burgess, dean of the prospective program, expressed disappointment with the setback but says he isn’t surprised. 

“I understand they need to look into this thoroughly, and we’ll continue to work with them,” said Burgess, vice president of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Cooperative Extension in Tucson. When asked to explain what’s driving the delay, he responded: “You’ll have to ask them. This is their process, not mine.” 

About 1,700 people reportedly have expressed interest in the program, though Burgess speculates some won’t have the qualifications needed for entry. Feeding UA’s veterinary school will be its pre-veterinary program, an established undergraduate program within the university. Plans are to admit 100 students, but no cap has been set. “We have people beating down our doors to come in,” Burgess said. 

AVMA and COE officials have not publicly stated what concerns they have, if any, with UA’s prospective program. The process is confidential. 

Burgess and his colleagues have been trying to bring a veterinary medical school to the University of Arizona since 2013, breathing life into plans that had lain dormant since the early 1970s. 

The road hasn’t been easy. Nearly a half-century of on-and-off talks to open a new school at UA have been reinvigorated at a time when much of the profession is grumbling about market saturation, client downturns and a debt-to-income ratio for new graduates that’s arguably worse than that of any other health care profession. Following a four-decade lull in college openings, two new schools debuted in 2014, and many established veterinary colleges have expanded their programs, either by adding seats to their classes or drawing students from universities in other states via partnership arrangements. 

One of the new schools is at Midwestern University, 130 miles north of Tucson in Glendale. Those who aren’t on the UA bandwagon wonder whether going from zero to two veterinary colleges in the state is a good idea, particularly for a profession that's struggling. 

Burgess responds to fears that the economy may be unable to support growing numbers of veterinarians, pointing to recent AVMA economic studies showing a “healthy” job market. 

“I would say that the AVMA themselves have incredible economic data on this,” he said. “And I’m focused on those people who can’t pay their debt-to-income ratio. We are looking at the least expensive way for Arizonans to go to school, and we’ve done that by a mile.” 

What Burgess means is that for Arizonans, UA tuition won’t be on a private or out-of-state scale, which hovers around $50,000 a year in the United States. It’s what Midwestern, a private university, charges its veterinary students. And if what Burgess says is correct, it’s what most aspiring veterinarians living in Arizona have to pay because out-of-state schools and Midwestern are their only options for earning a degree in veterinary medicine. 

Burgess seemed unbothered when asked for his reaction on Midwestern’s opening just as UA's program nears its launch: “Are we upset that Harvard exists? No way. We don’t even compete for the same students. Not many people can write those kinds of checks.” 

Roughly 90 perent of veterinary students rely on student loans to pay for their education. 
Tuition for UA’s prospective program hasn’t been set, though Burgess expects it will cost “around $120,000, plus or minus, for four-and-a-half academic years, which will be taught in three calendar years.” That’s on par with in-state tuition at other domestic veterinary schools, though UA’s length of professional education is 12 months shorter.

The way Burgess explains it, aspiring veterinary students must complete a pre-professional year before embarking on three years of professional education. In all, the UA program packs additional semesters — 11 of them, three more than what's offered at many other programs — into four years by keeping students in class when veterinary students at other universities are on break. He plans to populate UA's student body with Arizonans but will make room for non-residents who will pay out-of-state tuition. 

"We have no preconceived proportion but suspect based on interest it could be as high as 50 percent," Burgess said. "We will serve the stated needs of our Arizona stakeholders as a priority, and this number will shift over time as the economy moves. This ability and desire throughout the plan to change over time with the economy (state, national and international) is a fundamental aspect of the program."

On the UA website, officials talk of partnering with the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE), a regional nonprofit that pays the premium on out-of-state tuition for successful applicants who do not have a veterinary medical program in their home state. "
This partnership has not yet been arranged," Burgess said, "but we expect it will follow when the school is eligible for full accreditation. We’ll make a decision at that time about WICHE seats."

UA officials consider WICHE to be a financial plus for a program that's providing needed opportunity for Arizonans. "Other states' (WICHE) dollars will flow to us ...," the website states. "Currently, Arizona students must compete for veterinary school admissions as out-of-state, non-resident students. For example, 1,600 applicants compete for 138 seats at Colorado State University. Only 55 of these seats are open to non-Colorado applicants, and just a handful of these are filled by Arizonans."

The competition for seats may not be as fierce as that statement suggests, mostly because the 1,600 figure comes with a twist. Nearly all aspiring veterinary students apply to U.S. programs through the Veterinary Medical College Application Service (VMCAS). Operated by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, this central agency permits students to apply to more than one program at a time. In other words, most of the 1,600 or so applicants to Colorado State also applied to several other programs. The fact that the number of applicants to a school likely does not accurately reflect how many would attend if all were accepted is not typically made clear by universities

"The number of students that apply exclusively to one school is very, very low," said Lisa Greenhill, AAVMC associate executive director for institutional research and diversity. "Most are hedging their bets. If they have an opportunity to apply in-state, they will, but they're typically applying to other schools as well." 

A more accurate read would be the AAVMC's applicant-to-seat ratio, reportedly at 1.6-to-1. That's the lowest it's been since at least 1980, and AVMA economists anticipate the applicant pool will continue to shrink, making it tougher for programs to select the most qualified candidates.

The downward trend reflects growth in veterinary academia, experts say. Simply, opportunities for earning a degree in veterinary medicine have never been so plentiful. Foreign veterinary medical programs have earned U.S. veterinary accreditation at an unprecedented clip during the past decade. The distinction allows foreign schools to offer U.S.-government-funded school loans to their American students. AAVMC officials report that 617 U.S. citizens currently are in their first year of veterinary education at institutions in Europe, New Zealand and Australia. Last fall, Americans filled nearly 600 first-year seats at programs in the Caribbean and another 34 seats in Canada. 

How these figures compare historically is impossible to say because the AAVMC did not track numbers of American students abroad until last year. But the trend line for U.S. veterinary medical education is clear. Last fall, 3,277 first-year students enrolled at U.S. programs, showing 23 percent growth in domestic seats since 2006. By comparison, enrollment grew during the previous decade by 13.8 percent, with first-year enrollee figures climbing from 2,326 in 1996 to 2,657 in 2006, AAVMC reported

Burgess said he isn't worried about collegiate competition; he's confident UA will draw plenty of qualified candidates. He's more focused on creating opportunities in Arizona, which he maintains is short on veterinarians. 

UA's website elaborates: "... the need is particularly acute for communities outside Maricopa County, especially for large-animal and mixed-animal practitioners. The tribal nations also for years have needed veterinarians and are working with the UA to address this concern." 

Need for veterinarians doesn't necessarily mean an underserved area can financially support a veterinary practice. A shortage of veterinarians in a particular area may be driven by economics. In response to a recent barrage of news articles about the need for more veterinarians in rural areas of the state, Dr. Minta Keyes penned a commentary to the Arizona Daily Star, questioning such claims. 

"Over the past several years, the Star has published several stories about the purported shortage of food-animal veterinarians in Arizona as the driving force for establishing a veterinary college at the University of Arizona," wrote Keyes, a feline practitioner in Tucson. "... Every time I see one of these stories indicating there is unmet demand for food-animal veterinarians in Arizona, I do a quick Internet job search ... Today, I turned up one opening in rural Arizona for an 80 percent small-animal/20 percent large-animal position.

"Between there being few job openings in rural Arizona and an expectation that a rural practitioner with a lower level of indebtedness should be willing to settle for lower wages," she wrote, "the question arises as to how critical the shortage of veterinarians really is."

Keyes points to statements by Burgess, who told the Arizona Daily Star in March that he expects UA veterinary students to incur about $70,000 in educational debt. That figure is much lower than national averages reported last year by the AVMA, which put the student loan tab for 2015 graduates at $103,327 for residents and $191,710 for nonresidents.

Without a six-figure student loan bill, UA graduates could be free to accept jobs offering lower salaries, Burgess said. And that could make veterinary care more affordable, particularly in economically depressed areas in need of veterinarians. “The trouble is that if you’ve got a $300,000 debt you just can’t afford to be paid less. You have to go where the highest-paying jobs are,” Burgess told the newspaper. “So even if you wanted to go back to rural Arizona, the system doesn’t enable it, doesn’t allow it.”

Reducing what it costs to earn a degree in veterinary medicine won't solve all of the profession's problems, Burgess said,
 but the ivory tower trend that’s driven higher education during the past half-century is “something we’re walking the other direction from.”

For example, there will be a teaching hospital, “but it won’t be the Taj Mahal,” Burgess said. Staffing the facility will take place in partnership with the area’s private practitioners, who will run their businesses under under UA’s roof while teaching the college’s aspiring clinicians. This model, Burgess points out, “goes out of its way to not compete with private practitioners.” 

To cut costs, UA is using existing biomedical facilities on campus and retrofitting recently purchased spaces rather than building from the ground up. The capital improvements are anticipated to run $25 million, of which $16 million already has been raised to support the operation, Burgess said. The Arizona Board of Regents reportedly allocated $8 million in state funds to support the program. 

“We’re not doing anything that hasn’t already been suggested by the profession,” he said, referring to various stakeholder reports by the AAVMC and other groups. “Do we have evidence that this will be a good thing for our students? Yes. We are looking at how we can best serve our state and its citizens.” 

UA, he promises, will continue to work toward accreditation. The next COE meeting is in September.

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