COE rejects Arizona veterinary program

University of Arizona to appeal COE decision

August 11, 2016 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

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Dr. Shane Burgess announced Tuesday that the University of Arizona's fledgling veterinary program has hit an accreditation roadblock. In a letter to constituents, the veterinary college's interim dean identified plans to launch a master's program and undergraduate courses where prospective veterinary students can begin their course work while the new veterinary college hashes out its differences with Council on Education, the nation's sole accrediting body for veterinary medicine.
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The University of Arizona’s quest to open the nation’s 31st veterinary medical program won’t end with a recent accreditation setback.

Officials say they will appeal a recent decision by the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education to withhold from the program a letter of reasonable assurance, a designation that does not confer accreditation but means a developing college is presumed by the COE to be headed in that direction. Reasonable asssurance is the first step in a multi-leveled accreditation process that's finalized after a program's inaugural class graduates, typically four years after opening.

The COE decision means that UA's latest anticipated opening in fall 2017 likely will be pushed back. Establishing a veterinary school has been an on-and-off aspiration of UA since the 1950s.

“As you know, we have proposed major innovations so that veterinary medical education can be delivered with less cost to Arizona’s students and their families,” interim dean Dr. Shane Burgess said in a mass email delivered Tuesday. “These kinds of innovations hold great promise for the profession, and we expect the council to be diligent in their review.”

By phone, Burgess didn't explore why the COE withheld reasonable assurance but insisted that no changes with the program need to be made. He’s asking that the COE rethink the decision. Reasonable assurance is all that's keeping UA's veterinary college from opening its doors, and Burgess says there is a long line of aspiring veterinarians who are anxious to get into the program.

“This has been a 50-year process at the University of Arizona, and we’re absolutely committed,” he said. “What we want to do is work with the AVMA to clarify things we believe they have missed. We actually meet the standards.”

Concerns identified by the COE are laid out in a July 12 letter by COE chairman Dr. John Pasco, who outlined UA's failure to meet COE standards in these five areas: financial viabilty, staffing and recruiting, high-quality research and learning opportunities for UA students.

"The council found that the school's plan, when implemented, will not permit the school to be in compliance with Standard 2 Finances, Standard 4 Clinical Resources, Standard 6 Students, Standard 8 Faculty, and Standard 10 Research," Pascoe said.

UA released the COE's findings to the public. The COE, however, has been quiet. Its members are bound by confidentiality agreements imposed by the AVMA, and while the group is somewhat forthcoming when programs are accredited or successfully meet steps toward that end, negative outcomes are less publicized. There's been no mention of the rejection on the accreditation body's website, and an announcement won't be made until the appeal is finalized.

Burgess said he's “definitely disappointed,” particularly for the hundreds of prospective veterinary students who are interested in the program. “We've had a great number of students continually asking when and how and they are very, very concerned. We have thousands of people who care greatly about the outcome of this appeal, and we believe we have grounds,” he said.

“We recognize the need for a strong critique of the program,” he added. “It's been designed around meeting the (COE) standards.”

There are 11 COE standards covering topics such as a program's facilities, structure, curriculum, resources and admission processes. Reasonable assurance is a major first step toward proving that a program can meet those standards, and the distinction denotes an expectation that full accreditation is on the horizon. If a developing program has ever not been fully accredited by the COE after receiving reasonable assurance, the occurrence is exceedingly rare.

UA won't admit students to the veterinary program without reasonable assurance from the COE, although technically, it's not needed to open. Burgess wants the recognition for UA's veterinary college; no other U.S. program operates without it.

“It also enables our students to access federal loans,” he added.

Accreditation by the COE provides a program’s students with access to professional loans under Title VII of the U.S. Public Health Act. With U.S. veterinary college tuition for in-state students ranging from $20,000 to $55,000 a year, roughly 90 percent of all veterinary students rely on federal student loans to pay for their education.

Burgess said UA is eager to get the hearing process underway. An intent to appeal has been submitted to the COE, and documents to support it are due in early September, along with a $10,000 deposit to cover hearing-related expenses.

Mechanics of appeal

According to COE policy and procedures, the hearing must be held at or near AVMA headquarters in Schaumburg, Illinois, within 120 days after receiving the appeal. The AVMA Board of Directors appoints a seven-member panel to preside over the hearing, which is closed to the public.

The panel can reverse or amend the COE's decision, or it can remand aspects of the case back to the COE for further consideration. Any judgment the panel makes will be considered by the COE with instructions for implementation. UA will be notified in writing of panel's final decision, which is confidential. If the COE's original decision is upheld, UA must pay all expenses tied to the appeal, including the AVMA's legal fees, and wait a year before reapplying.

"The council's decision should not be reversed by the appeal panel without sufficient evidence that the council's decision was plainly wrong or without evidence to support it," rules for appeal state. "Accordingly, the appeal panel should not substitute its judgment for that of the council merely because it would have reached a different decision had it heard the matter originally."

If the COE's decision is reversed, UA is responsible for its own legal fees plus half of the bill for food, transportation, meeting space and additional expenses.

Asked if the task seems daunting, Burgess replied that UA isn't giving up. The program is advertising for a permanent dean. Burgess will continue his role as vice president of Agriculture, Life and Veterinary sciences, and Cooperative Extension.

Plans for program

UA's efforts to open a veterinary college come at a time when the profession is facing economic struggles that experts say threaten veterinary medicine's future. With veterinary college tuition rising at rates that far outpace inflation, many new graduates are leaving school with educational debt more than twice their annual salaries. Starting salaries for the 2015 graduating class averaged about $70,000 a year, the AVMA reported in March. Results from the AVMA's annual senior survey, published Aug. 1 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, reveal that mean debt accumulated for all students over four years was $142,394. Five percent of those students reported carrying more than $300,000 in student loans.

In addition to a debt-to-income ratio that ranks highest across all health professions, some in veterinary medicine assert that a recent surge of new or expanding programs is adding to market pressures. Two schools debuted in 2014, and many established veterinary colleges have either added seats to their classes or draw additional students from universities in other states via partnership arrangements. The trend is feeding the market with more new veterinary graduates than ever, creating what critics say is greater competition at a time of economic insecurity and a reported decline in veterinary visits.

One of the new schools is at Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona, 130 miles north of UA's campus in Tucson. Some in the profession wonder whether local markets will be able to absorb graduates from both programs if UA's veterinary college joins Midwestern in generating new veterinarians. Going from zero to two veterinary colleges could create a glut of veterinarians in some regions, warn critics.

Burgess counters market-saturation fears by pointing to recent AVMA economic studies that back an assertion that more veterinarians are needed in underserved, rural areas and that economic growth is on an upswing. 

He said the debt burden is a crisis UA is poised to tackle.

Burgess plans to do it by shortening the road to earning a DVM. UA admissions would not lean toward accepting candidates with a four-year bachelor's degree, as do most American veterinary programs. Candidates instead would be required to complete pre-professional undergraduate requirements before embarking on a professional program that packs the traditional four years of veterinary education into three years. Shaving time off the traditional breaks that are common in academia is one way to do it, Burgess said. 

He promises that the veterinary college will run on a lean budget, driving down overhead costs by making use of existing resources, sharing faculty with the university’s other health programs and retrofitting space.

Burgess plans to populate UA's student body with Arizonans so they get the benefits of in-state tuition, although there would be space for higher-paying out-of-state students. He indicated that tuition would reflect national averages. At Midwestern, the only other veterinary program in Arizona, tuition for both in-state and out-of-state students is more than $58,000 a year. The VIN Foundation, which tracks and calculates education costs, reports that Midwestern is among the most expensive options for veterinary students in the country.

That's not to say UA offers the only chance for Arizona residents to access more reasonably priced in-state tuition rates. State partnership agreements make Arizonans eligible for in-state tuition at Colorado State University; Oregon State University; the University of California, Davis; Washington State University; and Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California, according to the VIN Foundation's cost of education map. 

The Veterinary Information Network is the parent of the VIN Foundation and the VIN News Service.

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