Officials at Marshall University hired researchers to study the feasibility of opening a veterinary school at the institution in Huntington, West Virginia.
West Virginia has shelved plans to launch a veterinary school in the state due to the projected need for an initial investment of $321 million, which it deemed unaffordable.
Consequently, efforts are under way to explore alternative methods to bring veterinarians to the region.
This decision bucks the trend in the U.S., where veterinary education is expanding at an unparalleled rate. At least 10 new veterinary schools are in the works. If all come to fruition, the number of schools in the nation would increase by nearly one-third, to 43, within the next decade.
Dr. Danny Montgomery, president of the West Virginia Veterinary Medical Association, said, "Our legislature started off very interested because, like many areas, we're extremely veterinary poor." He estimates that the state could use at least 200 additional veterinarians.
"The knee-jerk response is, 'Let's start a vet school to try to go ahead and fix this,' " Montgomery said. "But once they looked at finances required, as well as the availability of staff to staff a vet school, it was clear that we couldn't do it."
Instead, the focus now is on developing incentives such as scholarships to encourage students from West Virginia to return to their state to practice and boosting the number of subsidized seats so residents who study at out-of-state programs can pay in-state tuition, which generally is less expensive.
West Virginia provides more than $1 million annually to subsidize seats for 52 students at veterinary schools in Virginia and Mississippi, which take six and seven new students a year, respectively. The aim now is to obtain state funding for an additional 25 or so seats a year, Montgomery said. He noted that programs beyond the immediate region are interested in accommodating students from West Virginia.
"Every school on the East Coast has reached out to us, once they found out we were looking," Montgomery continued. "They want to increase their class sizes, or they're a new school coming online. So they've opened the door to us."
A proposal will be presented to the Legislature in January, and the hope is that increased subsidies will be available by 2025. This strategy has the potential to increase the state's population of veterinarians in four years if new graduates return to West Virginia to practice, rather than the minimum eight years it typically takes to establish a school and graduate an inaugural class.
Montgomery stressed the cost-effectiveness of this method: "We have about the same retention rate with our contract students that the average vet school has with their in-state students, so financially, it makes the most sense. We get the best bang for our buck by supporting the programs that are currently ongoing, and we get to continue with established programs that we know are successful and work."
West Virginia has pre-veterinary programs at seven institutions, including Marshall University, a public school in Huntington. A study funded by the university and conducted by Hanover Research detailed what it would take to establish a veterinary program at Marshall.
The report lists initial and ongoing expenses that include:
- initial building expenses of $235.2 million, based on the cost to Midwestern University to build a veterinary teaching hospital, large animal teaching facility and classrooms a decade ago in Glendale, Arizona;
- nearly $86 million per year to operate, which is the average among U.S. programs, according to the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges;
- $17.5 million a year in labor, based on salaries averaging $122,400 for postsecondary health sciences instructors; and
- $10,000 for an American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education accreditation assessment.
The study, dubbed the Marshall Report, highlighted potential ways to make the endeavor less expensive. It documented that some recently established veterinary schools have kept their construction expenses below $100 million by forgoing building teaching hospitals. Instead, they adopt a distributed learning approach, which sends students for their clinical training to local private clinics and other off-campus sites.
However, there are potential drawbacks. It hinges on the availability of local veterinarians willing to mentor students, the report said, and it would prevent Marshall from earning revenue through a teaching hospital, "which usually serves as the primary income source for vet schools."
A teaching hospital could make Marshall profitable by year 17, the report noted. The finding has raised eyebrows. "Most vet schools aren't making money; they run as a benefit to the citizens in the state," Montgomery said.
Building costs for veterinary school facilities at the nation's newest programs range from more than $235 million at Midwestern University in Arizona to $52.8 million at Long Island University in New York, the report said.
Numerous programs are supported by state funding to cover some of their hefty expenses. For instance, Utah State University, which plans to launch a veterinary school in fall 2024, is slated to receive an annual state subsidy of $21.4 million. Similarly, New Jersey has earmarked $75 million for academic and clinical buildings at a forthcoming veterinary school at Rowan University, the report said.
Once established, the report indicates, veterinary schools often find it challenging to attract and retain top talent. As evidence of this, The Ohio State University recently received $9 million more in state funds to recruit leading faculty and staff.
Predating the Marshall Report, West Virginia lawmakers in 2021 formed the Special Committee on Viability of West Virginia Veterinary Medicine School to assess the need for an in-state program. The committee found that in 2019, there were 450 veterinarians with active licenses in the state, which averages to one veterinarian per 3,900 residents. AVMA figures from 2019 put the national ratio of veterinarians to population at one per 2,827.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, who aspired to be a veterinarian before he was swayed toward law school, played a pivotal role in advancing further research on the matter. In 2022, the Legislature approved a resolution directing the Joint Committee on Government and Finance to investigate the viability of founding a new veterinary program.
Building on the premise that West Virginia faces big increases in pet ownership and an aging veterinary population, the feasibility study cited news reports of a "dire veterinarian shortage" and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projections from 2019 that indicated a 16% increase in demand for veterinarians over the next decade.
However, the study identified that financial challenges tied to veterinary education remain a significant barrier. The average veterinarian in West Virginia earns $107,320, which the report says is modest when set against the significant student loan debt many in the field have. The mean debt balance for veterinarians who graduated in 2022 with student loans was $179,505, and many graduates had much higher debt than the average, the AVMA recently reported, adding: "A sobering reality: more than a quarter of the class had a debt-to-income ratio of 2.0 or more."
Montgomery, the WVVMA president, works in a four-doctor practice in Princeton, West Virginia. He said that while the practice could use two more doctors, the level of demand for help doesn't warrant creating a whole new veterinary program.
"A vet school for West Virginia would be like us needing a few new cars and instead of purchasing them, building an automotive plant," he said. "You've got to think of what's best for the taxpayers of West Virginia, what's best for our citizens and how we get veterinarians to help take care of our animals."