COE amends standards to address veterinary student well-being, debt

Jan. 31 deadline to comment on revisions to standard 11

January 4, 2017 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

U.S.-accredited veterinary schools now are required to more thoroughly counsel students about financial management, their debt and career planning, as well as provide information on how to withdraw from school and collect tuition refunds. 

The mandates are the result of a recent vote by the Council on Education to ramp up assistance for students by revising three of the 11 accreditation standards used to evaluate veterinary education. The COE operates under the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges as the sole programmatic accrediting body for veterinary education in the United States and Canada. The revisions address the high student loan debt and comparatively low starting salaries that burden recent graduates.

The changes come a year after the Student American Veterinary Medical Association (SAVMA) asked for better and earlier financial guidance from veterinary academia to ensure that aspiring veterinarians grasp the ramifications of entering a profession in which most students borrow to pay for school and graduate with six-figure debt. Many new veterinarians say they enter the workforce hamstrung by a lack of business and financial knowledge while working long hours to make stifling loan payments. Those conditions prompted a resolution by SAVMA in 2016, which asked the COE to create a new 12th standard requiring accredited programs to demonstrate that their students understand the costs tied to earning degree and ways to minimize them. 

COE vacancies

Rather than adopt it, the COE opted to strengthen its existing standards. Under revisions of standards 6 and 9, enacted during the COE’s Sept. 24-26 meeting, U.S.-accredited programs must: 

  • provide students with information and access to counseling services regarding financial aid, debt management and career advising. Career advising must include selection of clinical experiences;
  • provide information on procedures for withdrawal including the refund of student’s tuition and fees as allowable;
  • provide students with an accurate academic calendar;
  • provide opportunities throughout the curriculum for students to gain an understanding of professional ethical, legal, economic and regulatory principles related to the delivery of veterinary medical services;
  • demonstrate that students are informed of and have ready access to academic counseling, personal wellness, financial aid and career planning services;
  • provide a list of tuition-related information available for prospective students. This information, as consistent with applicable law, must include estimated total educational cost, cost of living, considerations, and a description of financial aid programs; 
  • make collected data on salaries, employment rates, and educational debt available to the public, as consistent with applicable law;
  • describe how conflicts of interest regarding academic assessment of students are avoided with individuals who provide student counseling.

Additionally, a proposed change to standard 11, which involves outcomes assessments, is up for public comment. It’s the second time in roughly a year that standard 11 has been up for modification. The COE voted in March to amend the standard to say that institutions must be able to observe, assess and document that students demonstrate "ethical and professional conduct; communication skills including those that demonstrate an understanding and sensitivity to how clients' diversity and individual circumstance can impact health care."

This time, the COE wants accredited programs to observe and informally assess students during the learning process in addition to formally evaluating them against benchmarks. 

Stakeholder input is due Jan. 31 and can be sent electronically to Anahita Gonda at with the subject line “standard 11 public comments.” Comments also can be mailed to Gonda’s attention at AVMA offices, 1931 N. Meacham Road. Ste 100, Schaumburg, IL 60173-4360.

Not far enough

While comments to the COE aren't public, some in the profession suggest that the changes don't go far enough. In addition to providing aspiring veterinarians with an early and unvarnished view of how much it costs to become one — upwards of $350,000 in some cases — SAVMA proposed that the COE require broad counseling that's tailored to the veterinary domain. Specifically, SAVMA called for mandatory courses covering career development, debt repayment options, personal finances, business management and overall well-being. 

SAVMA President Jeff Olivarez, a fourth-year student at Oklahoma State University's Center for Veterinary Health Sciences, said the changes the COE made to its accreditation standards are a "step in the right direction," even if they're not all the group had hoped for and requested. 

"One of the most exciting things to take from all of this is that the students spoke and people listened," he said by email. "While we, SAVMA, thought a new standard was the best approach, the COE saw differently. I think the changes they made are a fair compromise. I cannot be upset when I see people working together and making progress, even if some may view that progress as small. 

"I think it is important to remember that the student debt issue isn't going to be resolved by accreditation standard changes alone," he added. "It is a multi-faceted beast that we need to attack on all fronts." 

Dr. Matt Holland, who was SAVMA president when standard 12 was proposed, said he's encouraged by the COE's response. The outcome, however, has left him wanting more.

"The term 'provide' or 'must provide' is mentioned 11 times in standard 6, regarding financial information and services," he pointed out. "Nowhere does it mention that students must or will receive information or services, and that is a subtle but crucial difference." Without more prescriptive language, it's "too easy for students to enter, and even graduate, school with little to no understanding of the loan or loan repayment process," he said.  

"That lack of understanding is the underlying problem contributing to the cycle of recent graduates experiencing crippling amounts of debt," Holland said. He suggested that some in veterinary academia might be hesitant to impress upon applicants that borrowing to pay for veterinary education might negatively impact their ability to own a home or buy a practice. Administrators are interested in attracting applicants, not deterring them, he said. 

"... If I learned one thing in veterinary school, it's that prevention is better than treatment," Holland said. "If we're going to practice what we preach, we need to take steps to stop the problem in the first place. To that end, the changes to standards 6 and 9 represent progress, and I'm confident that continued collaboration will lead to more of the the same in the future."

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