St. George's shuns rumors of closing, seeks U.S. accreditation

Federal student aid could soon be available to students

May 14, 2010 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Despite anecdotal reports predicting the death of St. George's School of Veterinary Medicine, officials maintain that the future has never been brighter for the 11-year-old Caribbean-based program.

The university expects that its veterinary medical students soon will be able to secure federal student aid, according to newly proposed eligibility criteria for foreign veterinary schools that is slated for publication next month in the Federal Register. What's more, officials also predict that the program will earn U.S. accreditation, perhaps as early as fall 2011.

Representatives of the American Veterinary Medical Association's Council on Education (AVMA COE) — recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as the nation's only accrediting body for veterinary medical programs — are expected to visit St. George's on the island of Grenada next spring.

St. George's Director of Enrollment Jeffrey Bates recalls that university officials hosted a consultative site visit from COE members in 2007, and views the potential spring visit as the next and final step toward earning U.S. accreditation.

"They came and left us with a full report," Bates says of the COE's visit. "They said we were a little short on research, so we hired some additional faculty members to do just that."

The COE, secretive when it comes to the status of specific bids for accreditation, does not include St. George's on its list of site visits scheduled, though the dates do not extend beyond 2010. An article published by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in June 2009, notes that the COE denied requests by St. George's and Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, another offshore program based in the Caribbean, to conduct comprehensive visits, which is the final stage of on-site evaluation in COE accreditation processes.

Bates states that St. George's officials are encouraged by the COE's recent decision to extend three years of accreditation to Western University of Health Science's College of Veterinary Medicine, based in Pomona, Calif. Founded in 1998, Western U's educational model deviates from that of more traditional U.S. programs because its students conduct their clinical rotations in a variety of private practices rather than in a university-based veterinary teaching hospital setting.

Why is that important? Because like Western U, St. George's and other offshore veterinary medical programs use untraditional means to train their veterinary students to become clinically competent.

Three Caribbean-based veterinary medical programs — Ross University, St. George's and St. Matthew's University on Grand Cayman — are widely believed to catch the overflow of U.S. veterinary school applicants who fail to secure a seat in one of the country's 28 veterinary medical programs. (An estimated 80 percent of the veterinary students enrolled at St. George's are U.S. citizens.) These students are taught the basic sciences portion of their education during their first three years at their home school but then travel to an off-site college, usually a U.S.-based veterinary medical program, to complete their final year of clinical training.

With two revolving incoming classes — start dates are in August and January — St. George's School of Veterinary Medicine takes roughly 130 students a year. By comparison, Ross, on St. Kitts, starts three classes a year, graduating 2,400 veterinary students since the program was founded in the early 1980s. St. Matthew's, the newest and smallest of the three programs with its founding in 2005, has what it describes as a "rolling" admissions process.

"Definitely the Western decision should make it easier for us to get approved," says Bates. "After all, our students are working side by side with all the U.S. students for their fourth year.

"Grenada is very small," Bates adds, explaining the need for St. George's DVMs-in-training to experience the caseloads of other institutions. "We're affiliated with 23 vet schools in the United States, Canada, England, Ireland and Australia."

Like St. George's, Ross University also is seeking U.S. accreditation. According to the program's website, the school is completing a revised self-study report for submission to the AVMA COE in July, and officials anticipate hosting a comprehensive site visit in the near future.

The prospect of earning the COE's nod coupled with a recent proposed revision to federal regulations that limit access to student aid to students of U.S.-accredited programs are expected to ease the financial burdens of St. George's students as well as pressures on the university. By itself, COE accreditation would allow St. George's students to circumvent the expensive and cumbersome foreign graduate equivalency examinations required of graduates from non-accredited programs — a system that, in March, prompted a St. Matthew's veterinary student's public complaint to congressional lawmakers and President Obama.

St. George's students have never had access to U.S. federal student aid, and even if the COE accredits the veterinary school, that does not mean it can participate in Title IV student loan programs that include, among others, Federal Pell Grants and Federal Stafford Loans. Though the COE is not authorized by USDA to act as an accrediting body that enables colleges to participate in Title IV student loans, St. George's Associate Dean Bob Ryan reports that the USDE looks to AVMA first before determining whether a program is worthy of the distinction.

"It’s certainly not the AVMA that makes that determination, but it does matter," Ryan says. "It's a measuring tool that the department is using."

Bates explains that being shut out of the U.S. student loan system mattered little when lending institutions extended credit relatively freely to those enrolled in the DVM program.

Now the recession has put a freeze on education credit lines, forcing the university to pick up the slack for students who have a hard time getting loans from banks. It's an environment that has fueled rumors that the program might not survive, with several independent reports reaching the VIN News Service. With tuition running more than $30,000 a year, St. George's has been lending its veterinary students money at interest rates ranging from 10 to 12 percent.

"That's pretty high," Bates acknowledges.

Yet Bates and others expect that access to the U.S. federal student loan system will soon open.

According to a little-known proposed rule change expected to be published for public comment in a June issue of the Federal Register, a new provision would require foreign veterinary schools to be accredited or provisionally accredited by an organization acceptable to the U.S. education secretary in order to be eligible for Title IV financial aid programs.

If all goes as planned, St. George's students could have access to Title IV financial assistance because the veterinary medical program is accredited by the Island of Grenada. The same goes for other offshore programs, though Ross is already a Title IV institution, having earned the distinction before regulations limited access to it.

Concerning St. George's potential to earn Title IV eligibility, Bates says: "Our chancellor, who has always worked very closely with the U.S. Department of Education, has already submitted our application."

Ryan adds that St. George's officials are hopeful that the program's Title IV status will take affect before the end of 2010, and be accessible to students in January.

"We can really turn loans around in a week, maybe 10 days," he says. "I think the loan process is pretty buttoned up between the education department and St. Georges."

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