Utah State aims to open its own veterinary college

Pending state funding, accreditation, the plan would expand existing two-year program

Published: February 16, 2022
Photo by Dennis Hinkamp
The Utah State University School of Veterinary Medicine is headquartered, for now, in the Albrecht Agricultural Sciences Building. That will change if lawmakers agree to fund the development of a four-year program.

Utah State University plans to parlay what's currently a 2+2 partnership with Washington State University into a four-year veterinary college that would open in fall 2024 to some 40 first-year students. 

Approval requires an $80 million one-time investment from the state for facilities construction, curriculum development and staffing; a willingness by the state to put $18 million more a year toward operating the program, above the $3.4 million it already provides; and accreditation by the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education.

The money piece is expected to be decided before the state Legislature adjourns for the year on March 4.

"By the end of this legislative session, we are anticipating knowing whether the funding is approved," said Dr. Dirk Vanderwall, associate dean of USU veterinary school and head of the Department of Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences. "If we don't get it, we would still continue planning, but we are dependent on having the full funding approved and available to fully move forward with this proposal." 

Under the proposal, the new program's initial 40 seats per class would quickly double, with half of the seats reserved for Utah residents. By fall 2025, "our new [College of Veterinary Medicine] teaching building will be finished and ready for occupancy, and it will accommodate a class size of 80 students," Vanderwall explained by email. 

In USU's current arrangement with WSU, which began in 2012, 30 students receive their first two years of preclinical training at USU's Logan campus and complete the clinical portion of their veterinary education at WSU's veterinary college in Pullman, Washington. The state pays $1.7 million annually to cover the tuition premium charged to 40 Utah residents who attend WSU for their third and fourth years of education. 

The proposal thus far does not specify tuition. Tuition and fees for the 2+2 program are $26,871 per year. That figure does not include living expenses.

In brief

Proponents of growing veterinary education at USU cite high demand for veterinary professionals in the state and nationally. Animal agriculture in Utah is a $1.28 billion industry, and the state is in need of more veterinarians, university officials said in a pitch to lawmakers. What's more, they said a full veterinary school at USU would capture "the $16.3 million in tuition that is currently leaving the state." 

"There is currently no school of veterinary medicine in the Intermountain West (Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, and Montana)," the pitch reads. Aspiring veterinarians want in-state education, Vanderwall said, and the proposed veterinary college could double the number of Utah residents who are currently accepted to the USU program. 

"We are averaging over 60 applications for 20 seats; we're turning away well-qualified applicants each year," he said. 

Proposal draws support 

Utah is one of at least four states considering establishing a full veterinary school. New Jersey, West Virginia and Arkansas are looking at building programs from scratch. If all are approved, the number of programs in the United States will jump from 33 to 37 within the next few years. The burst of newly proposed programs comes on the heels of three that have opened since 2020: Long Island University in New York, the University of Arizona and Texas Tech University. 

Like most new programs, USU plans to forgo building a multimillion-dollar veterinary teaching hospital in favor of distributed learning, an approach in which fourth-year students would receive clinical training at private practices and state agencies that partner with the school.

Dr. Jane Kelly, a USU faculty member and president of the Utah Veterinary Medical Association, said some of her colleagues doubt such partnerships can provide training and education on par with an on-campus veterinary teaching hospital. Much of the state's veterinary profession, however, agrees that a full program at USU is warranted.

"The UVMA met and wrote a letter in support for the Legislature," she said. "We don't know for sure that they've got the money needed to move forward, but we voted to support this unanimously."

Dr. Nathan Whiting, a small animal practitioner with the Utah-based practice group Canyon View Cares Veterinary Hospitals, said he and others aren't waiting for the Legislature's decision before moving forward with their own projects. A nonprofit entity with ties to Canyon View Cares is in talks to acquire USU land just north of campus in hopes of becoming a source of hands-on clinical training of veterinary students.

"We want to get students involved in clinical practice at every level and do it in a positive and mentoring way," said Whiting, calling the proposal to expand the veterinary program "a great step forward for the school and the state."

Canyon View Cares, with four locations in Utah and a fifth in Idaho, is trying to expand, as well, but struggling to hire at least two or three associate veterinarians. And they're in good company, Whiting said: "Right now, the majority of practices that I know of, that I'm in regularly contact with, are all looking for associate vets. Utah is one of the fastest growing states in the country, and our demand for veterinarians is increasing every year."

The 2020 U.S. Census found Utah grew 18.4% over a 10-year period to nearly 3.3 million residents, representing the fastest growth in the nation.

Utah would not be the first state in a 2+2 partnership with WSU to go off on its own. For more than 20 years, Oregon had a similar arrangement. The alliance ended after Oregon State University created its own four-year program beginning in 2003.

Dr. Dori Borjesson, WSU veterinary college dean, has no reservations about Utah's plans. "Leadership at Utah State has talked about wanting their own program for many years," she said by email. "There is clearly a high demand for veterinary professionals right now. Utah State has been a great partner program, and if they get funding, we will work with them to assure a smooth transition for their program."

Borjesson isn't worried about being able to fill the 30 or so seats currently earmarked for Utah students, noting that WSU has been looking to increase its class size to meet growing needs of the profession.

WSU also has cooperative agreements with the University of Idaho and Montana State University.

Update: Utah State University received a commitment from the state Legislature to appropriate at least $18 million a year in ongoing funding for a new veterinary college, according to a university news release.

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