University of Arizona eyes 2015 opening for veterinary program

Inaugural classes begin at Lincoln Memorial, Midwestern

Published: September 10, 2014
By Jennifer Fiala

Photo by Judy A. Davis
The 71,000-acre V Bar V Ranch operates on the Walker Basin allotment within the Coconino National Forest in central Arizona. The public land ranch is one of the University of Arizona’s existing teaching and research facilities that will be used by the upcoming veterinary medical program.

A new veterinary college is on the horizon, set to emerge next fall at the University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson, 100 miles north of the Mexican border.

It’s also about two hours south of Midwestern University’s veterinary college in Glendale, which recently welcomed its inaugural class of 102 students, and a day’s drive from Lincoln Memorial University (LMU), where 96 aspiring veterinarians kicked off the program last month in Harrogate, Tennessee.

Until this year, the opening of a veterinary college was rare in the United States. The growth marks a surge not seen since the 1970s, when seven programs were established.

Today, 30 U.S. veterinary colleges are accredited, and the University of Arizona appears to be next in line given that a final site visit from the American Veterinary Medical Association’s accrediting arm, the Council on Education, is anticipated.

Evaluators last assessed the prospective college in January.

Shane Burgess, Ph.D., and dean of UA’s College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, said it’s an exciting time for the university. After the state Legislature twice refused to fund the new program, UA received a $9 million grant to start the veterinary college from the Kemper and Ethel Marley Foundation, a charity known for making large gifts to hospitals and other health care venues.

Burgess, who also will head the prospective veterinary college, points out that UA’s deep agriculture roots provide a solid foundation for veterinary education. The university owns 170,000 acres of farmland, two ranches, a slaughterhouse and dairy.

The program isn’t starting from scratch, he said.

“We don’t have to build the Taj Mahal to do this,” Burgess said. “We already have most of the facilities and faculty hired. We’re completely unencumbered by the need for large investments in buildings.”

That means no traditional small animal teaching hospital for UA. Rather, the veterinary college will incorporate distributed learning, rotating students through several UA-operated satellite facilities and some private practices to teach clinical and surgical skills.

One such site could be a clinic UA aims to purchase in Douglas, Arizona, adjacent to the Mexican town of Agua Prieta. “It’s a really underserved area,” Burgess said. “Three hundred thousand cattle cross that border every year, so part of our program involves border security and border health.”

Another distinction: UA is providing the equivalent of 11 semester equivalents of veterinary education in four years by forgoing some summer breaks, unlike more traditional veterinary programs that offer eight semesters in four years. If all goes as planned, the fledgling college will admit 100 veterinary students in fall 2015. Tuition and fees won’t be finalized until the Board of Regents meets this fall, but Burgess anticipates that the program will cost in-state students around $113,306 from orientation to graduation.

That’s would place UA’s veterinary college among the least expensive in the country and one of the most affordable option for Arizona residents. Burgess predicts that half the inaugural class will hail from the Grand Canyon State.

“We’re a state land-grant university that’s built with affordability in mind,” he said. “We’re trying to build a program that takes advantage of Arizona’s unique place in the country. We are training our students in existing facilities. We do not want to compete with local practitioners.”

Workforce anxieties

Like Midwestern and LMU, UA’s program is developing amid national debate about whether too many veterinarians are entering the U.S workforce.

The question du jour: How many veterinarians can the U.S. market bear?

New analysis from the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges shows the number of veterinary medical school graduates has grown by nearly 35 percent during the past decade. By 2017, the group projects that there will be 4,460 Americans graduating from veterinary colleges in the United States and abroad.

Leaders in veterinary medicine offer mixed and often conflicting opinions on the topic of market saturation, with some stating that the profession’s focus should be on increasing and expanding demand for services — not dialing back numbers of new graduates. Others caution that a growing academic sector is ignoring the financial pressures facing new graduates, most of whom enter the profession with six-figure educational debt and annual starting salaries around $67,000 for companion animal practice.

Arizona, set to go from zero to two veterinary programs in as many years, is a hub for concerns about whether there are enough jobs to support an influx of veterinarians. Dr. Richard Panzero, a 54-year-old practice owner in Tucson, warns that the state can’t assimilate 200 new veterinarians on an annual and ongoing basis.

Whether many graduates of either program will remain in Arizona is unknown. Midwestern’s inaugural class is comprised of just 24 Arizona residents. Another 24 students are from California. Residents from other parts of the country fill the remaining 54 seats.

“Before the recession, we were complaining that we couldn’t find associates, and that all went away when the economy tanked,” he said. “Now people are concerned that there won’t be jobs for these students when they graduate.”

At the same time, Panzero notes that plenty of veterinary college applicants exist despite soft job prospects, low starting salaries and ever-increasing tuitions.

Midwestern, for example, selected its first class from among 564 aspiring veterinarians. While many in that pool likely applied to other programs in addition to Midwestern, those who accepted the college’s invitation were not deterred by its $53,000-a-year price tag, ranking its tuition and fees among the country’s most expensive.

“If they’re not going to get a degree in Arizona, they will get it somewhere else,” reasoned Panzero, former president of the Arizona Veterinary Medical Association. “The fact is, there’s a long list of people willing to pay $50,000 a year to go to vet school.”

That perspective marks a divide in the profession, he said. “There are people who feel this is not good for the state, and there are others who feel it will raise the overall level of practice and give needed support to those who are deserving of a degree in veterinary medicine.

“I just don’t know how a new graduate is going to dig out of that kind of debt to ever buy a house, let alone a practice,” he added.

Unique road

Burgess is familiar with those concerns and says he has two things in mind as he develops the university’s veterinary college: affordability and producing well-rounded veterinarians who are prepared for a variety of possible job opportunities post graduation.

Asked whether he’s stressed about a potential rivalry with Arizona’s other veterinary college, Midwestern, Burgess explained that the two programs are not competitors.

“Midwestern is a private school, and we have a public school,” he said. “They have a completely different marketplace. An awful lot of people can’t afford to go to Midwestern; the math is really stressful. We don’t see ourselves in the same marketplace.”

What’s more, Midwestern is set up as a more traditional veterinary college, operating with a teaching hospital and standard four-year program.

By contrast, UA’s veterinary college will run four years, with each year divided into three 16-week sessions, each of which is equivalent to a semester. The unconventional academic calendar has given rise to rumors that students could enroll directly from high school, completing their undergraduate and professional degrees in a single program.

Officials at UA explained that exceptional high schoolers could be admitted to the program in rare cases. However, the majority of students in the proposed veterinary college will have earned an undergraduate degree or be upperclassmen nearing completion of a bachelor's program, perhaps in veterinary or animal sciences.

Burgess explained that students cannot be accepted into UA's veterinary college until they have completed university prerequisites. Addressing the confusion, he said: “It’s really hard to see the color purple until you’ve seen it. And that’s what’s happening."

The misperception that UA's veterinary college will be comprised mostly of students straight out of high school may be conflating a concept floated a few years ago for a new veterinary program at LMU. The thought was that a student would earn a bachelor’s degree and DVM in one six-year program. But the idea fell by the wayside.

The first veterinary students started class at LMU on Aug. 18, and they will be following a standard four-year program to earn their degree.

The private, nonprofit school enrolled 96 students. According to the university, 32 of the enrollees come from the tri-state region of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia. Regardless of residency, tuition for the 2014-15 year is $40,241; fees of $180 bring the total to $40,521. That puts LMU among the more affordable schools when comparing institutions’ cost of attendance for non-residents.

Cost is a backdrop

Affordability is just one of many factors students weigh when selecting a program.

Taylor McCoy said he applied to five or six veterinary colleges before being accepted by Western University of Health Sciences, Colorado State University and Midwestern.

He chose Midwestern mostly because it's in his hometown of Glendale, Arizona. The program is set in a new 78,000-square-foot academic building, and construction is underway on a 109,000-square-foot veterinary teaching clinic and 70,000-square-foot Equine and Bovine Center.

Beyond location, the fact that the college’s faculty aided McCoy during his application process determined his selection. “You can definitely tell the faculty cares,” he stated.

At age 23, McCoy says he wants to work in companion animal medicine and anticipates owning a practice.

He also expects to owe $100,000 to $200,000 in student loans upon graduating. Asked if Midwestern has apprised him of the financial implications tied to taking on such debt, McCoy stated that the college is soon putting on classes on how best to manage it.

For now, McCoy is wrapped up in anatomy, physiology and biochemistry courses. Just three weeks into the program, he’s finding that the class he enjoys most is on the practice of veterinary medicine, which explores clinical skills and case studies.

“I absolutely love it,” he said.

So does Leeann Coddington. Originally from Buffalo, New York, Coddington considered applying to veterinary college at Cornell University in her home state but had a desire to relocate.

“I was looking for somewhere sunny and warm,” she said.

Beyond its locale, Coddington said she liked the idea of being part of Midwestern’s very first class. When she visited the campus, she found the students to be happy, with a sense of balance in their lives, which contributed to her decision to apply.

Thinking about the various prices of schools that interested her, Coddington said, “It all boiled down to a difference of $10,000 to $12,000 (per year), so it kind of came more to, ‘What do I want?’ ”

Coddington long has wanted to work with animals and is especially drawn to wildlife. She’s willing to work in any number of arenas within veterinary medicine in order to pay off the cost of a degree.

Crunching the numbers, she estimates that she’ll borrow between $200,000 and $250,000 to complete the four-year program. “It’s almost like an unrealistic number, how high that is,” she acknowledged.

“I had to consider (this) long and hard. I thought about the money, and I thought about the future,” Coddington said. “In the end, I chose that I would take the cost.”

VIN News Service reporter Edie Lau contributed to this article

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