Western Canada veterinary school weighs two-tiered tuition

Some applicants willing to pay a lot more to attend program

May 9, 2019 (published)
By Lisa Wogan

This story has an important update

Photo by Debra Marshall
Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan is considering a novel tuition structure to cope with a reduction in government funding.

Imagine paying five times more to attend a university than your classmates.

It's a scenario set to be piloted next fall at the University of Saskatchewan Western College of Veterinary Medicine, where a handful of high-priced seats will be available to some students who did not get accepted during the routine application process. They would pay about CA$61,000 (US$45,000) in tuition for the first year, rather than the standard tuition of nearly CA$11,000 (US$8,000).

The proposed two-tiered tuition is intended to help cover a loss of about 25% in operating funds brought on by the pending withdrawal of financial support from the province of Alberta.

WCVM was established in 1963 by Canada's four westernmost provinces. Under a cost-sharing agreement, each province pays a figure proportional to the number of seats reserved for students from their respective jurisdictions. Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Alberta send 20 students per year and have been contributing about $8 million. Manitoba sends 15 students and contributes about $6 million. The college funds two seats for indigenous students from Western Canada. The Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut sometimes fund a student, bringing the total to 78. WCVM does not accept students from other provinces or countries.

In 2017, Alberta announced it was withdrawing from the arrangement starting with 2020-21, at which point it will funnel funding exclusively to the University of Calgary's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. 

Established in 2005, Calgary's student body is comprised exclusively of aspiring veterinarians from Alberta. Right now the class size is small: 30 seats. But there are plans to add 20 more seats to the program in 2020, which would represent the full complement presently attending WCVM.

Three other veterinary programs exist in the country. One is Atlantic Veterinary College at University of Prince Edward Island. A regional school like WCVM, it is funded cooperatively by Canada's Atlantic provinces and takes students from those provinces. Unlike WCVM, it accepts some international students.

Faculté de Médecine Vétérinaire at the University of Montréal is a French-language program in Quebec, funded by that province, and open to all French-speaking Canadian citizens and permanent residents. Ontario Veterinary College at University of Guelph, likewise funded by Ontario, accepts Canadians who are residents of the province and 15 international students.

WCVM dean Dr. Doug Freeman spoke to the VIN News Service about the pilot program. "With the departure of Alberta and that big hole in our program, we needed to think outside the usual box," he said. That thinking included reorganizing the school's hospital to reduce costs and increase revenue, and possibly offering an undergraduate biomedical degree. But most of the focus is on tuition and funding from provincial governments, which make up the lion's share of revenue.

"The pilot was designed to put our toe in the water and essentially work through the process of setting up," Freeman said, "and then to gauge interest."

Under the proposal, applicants who were not accepted during the first round of admissions and had previously requested to be considered for what WCVM is calling an "open" position, would be ranked according to the same academic and non-academic criteria as the first group. Freeman calls the process "very competitive," and not a way for for middling students to buy their way into the program.

If successful, the two-tier structure might be expanded in the future.

When the college informed the approximately 400 applicants for the 2019-20 school year about the pilot, 150 said they wanted to be considered for open seats if they were not accepted in the first round. "It tells me there is a lot of interest," Freeman said. "Before we had even sent out the message and we were just talking about the idea, we were getting calls from students who were wondering about it."

Beyond that, Freeman said there has been very little public response to the proposal.

The school alternatively considered dramatically raising tuition across the board. "The reason we moved away from that was then [that] nobody has a choice," he said. "If you're in Western Canada, the WCVM is your option, unless you're in Alberta. So rather than have Alberta's decision impact all the students from the other provinces, we felt it was more appropriate to maintain the basic model."

Freeman added that the school did increase tuition by 10% for the 2019-20 school year. He said it is comparatively low.

WCVM also looked at the option of admitting and charging higher tuition to international students. While Freeman won't rule it out for the future, the college is not pursuing that option now.

"We had concerns about the optics of knowing we were turning students away to study offshore and bringing international students in instead," he said. "We think having open seats that are not supported by the interprovincial agreement and offering them to Western Canadian students who otherwise would not have been accepted serves our mission of serving Western Canada."

According to Freeman, even with CA$61,000/year tuition, WCVM is in the middle of the pack among internationally accredited schools in terms of cost.

He said he doesn't know the number of Western Canadians attending school outside the country. "We just know that there is a regular stream every year," he said.

Dr. Chiara Switzer, who is a relief veterinarian in Toronto and graduate of Ontario Veterinary College, said she was shocked by the idea of two-tiered tuition at first. "It's not as weird to me now that I've thought about it a little," she wrote on a message board of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession. "Essentially, they're offering subsidized tuition to X number of students and unsubsidized tuition to a few students who didn't make the initial cut — that's not that much different than schools that offer X number of in-state seats to students and Y number of out-of-state seats at a higher price tag." 

Freeman makes similar comparisons to the resident/nonresident tuition model in the U.S. "It's not like it's inventing the wheel … but it's not a typical solution here in Canada," Freeman said.

Median tuition and fees for U.S. colleges in 2018-19 was $31,979 for residents versus $52,613 for nonresidents, according to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. 

A hike in tuition for any group of students begets questions about increasing student debt.

"As a profession, we are worried about students taking on that kind of debt load," Freeman said, adding that he advocates for financial literacy workshops and expanding scholarships. He surmises that the students who are willing to pay the higher tuition at WCVM would otherwise attend school outside the country, where the cost might be just as or more expensive.

He also points out that the history of strong public funding for higher education in Canada has so far made it possible for its students to avoid the big debt loads of their southern neighbors. The average debt for a WCVM graduate is approximately CA$70,000 (US$52,000), he said. The average debt of a class of 2018 borrower in the U.S. was $183,014, according to a recent report by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

The two-tiered tuition proposal is still under discussion, and it's possible that the three remaining provinces in the interprovincial pact could make changes to their financial contribution and the number of seats. Manitoba reportedly is discussing reducing funding. In Alberta, a new government has been voted in since the decision was made to withdraw funding from WCVM, and Freeman said he would welcome the opportunity to re-engage in the conversation.

Meanwhile, the first round of acceptances at WCVM go out early next month.

Update: The provincial governments that fund the University of Saskatchewan Western College of Veterinary Medicine have agreed the school can accept between 10 and 25 Western Canadian students into seats not supported by provincial grants this fall. Tuition for these seats will be about $67,000. The application deadline was Jan. 31, 2020. The college will also accept international students for the first time in 2021. For more information, visit the admissions website.

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