Utah veterinary school plan hits a time crunch

Application window will open late for a projected start in 2025

Published: July 03, 2024
By Edie Lau and Jennifer Fiala

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Photo courtesy of Utah State University
Utah State University broke ground on May 31 on a $77 million veterinary medical education building on the main campus in Logan.

If Utah State University's planned veterinary school were already established, aspiring students could have begun applying months ago to be considered for enrollment in fall 2025.

But USU's veterinary school is not yet in place, and while school officials hope to enroll their first class at that time, they anticipate accepting applications no earlier than spring 2025. That's nearly one year after most veterinary schools and fewer than two months before most applicants commit to a program.

The compressed schedule is driven by the school's wait for a "letter of reasonable assurance," a preliminary and critical step in the process of accreditation.

Receiving the coveted document "won't happen until spring of 2025, March or April at the earliest," Dr. Cathleen Kovarik, the program director of admissions, told the VIN News Service. "Everything we do is contingent on getting that letter of reasonable assurance."

The American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education, which is the sole accreditor of veterinary schools in the United States and Canada, has scheduled a site visit to the prospective College of Veterinary Medicine in Logan, Utah, on Oct. 27-31. If the planned DVM program passes muster, it would receive the hoped-for letter some months afterward.

While a school may operate without accreditation, approval by an accreditor authorized by the U.S. Department of Education is needed for its students to access federal financial aid, including loans. An unaccredited program or one failing to make progress toward accreditation would be limited to students who can pay for their schooling upfront or who borrow money only from private lenders, which usually is considered an ill-advised option.

In brief

As Dr. Karen Rosenthal, a veterinarian with a background in academia, put it, "It is that letter [of reasonable assurance] that allows the tuition money machinery that propels vet schools forward."

Slippery timeline

USU's opening date has already slipped by a year since it announced in March 2022 that it had secured $18 million a year in state funding to operate a veterinary school. At the time, the university projected that it would accept applications in 2023 for enrollments in fall 2024.

By the end of 2023, the program website provided a softer timeline, stating on its homepage: "The intention of the USU CVM is to admit its first class in fall of 2025, pending approval from AVMA's Council on Education." Today, the homepage contains no reference to an opening date, but the prospective applicants section says that the intended opening in 2025 is contingent on receiving reasonable assurance of accreditation.

Reasonable assurance conveys confidence that the program will meet the standards for full accreditation, potentially achievable as the inaugural class approaches completion of its final year.

Utah's shifting timeline has been difficult for would-be applicants and their advisers to navigate, according to an adviser who asked not to be named for fear of harming the prospects of the aspiring veterinarians under their guidance.

"It's a confusing mess, and I feel bad for the students who remain extremely hopeful but increasingly unsure," the adviser lamented by email, noting that some students "are excited for the potential opportunity" to attend what would be the state's first full-fledged veterinary school.

USU offers an undergraduate bioveterinary science degree program geared toward students who intend to apply to veterinary school. And since 2012, it has operated a so-called 2+2 professional program in which students attend two years of veterinary school in Logan, then complete the last two years of their studies and earn their DVM at Washington State University, about 600 miles away.

Utah residents in the 2+2 are charged in-state tuition rates all four years. That represents a significant savings, as out-of-state tuition rates at public schools nationwide typically are about double the resident rates. WSU resident tuition and fees for first-year veterinary students are about $29,000, compared with about $64,000 for nonresidents.

Because USU plans to create its own standalone program, the class of 2028 — the one entering the 2+2 program in Utah this fall — will be the last to participate in the arrangement, Dr. Dori Borjesson, dean of the WSU veterinary college, confirmed.

"Next year, we won't be admitting any Utah students under the regional 2+2 program," Borjesson said, adding, "Of course, students from Utah may apply and be admitted to WSU, but they would be enrolled as traditional nonresident applicants."

Consequences of being out of sync

Almost all of the 33 established veterinary schools in the United States use a centralized application system called Veterinary Medical College Application Service, or VMCAS. For enrollment in fall 2025, applicants could begin inputting application materials in late January 2024, although they could not select schools until May 9.

A guide to VMCAS recommends completing and submitting applications at least six to eight weeks before the application deadline of Sept. 16.

Generally, schools make offers of admission for starting in late January, and applicants usually must commit by about mid-April.

With its calendar out of sync, USU says applications to its veterinary school will be routed through its School of Graduate Studies portal instead of VMCAS. The program website goes on to say, "No information may be submitted until our portal opens. Applications will be evaluated on a rolling basis; please continue checking our website for updates on the application process." Kovarik, the admissions director, said updates will continue throughout the fall.

Utah's is not the first veterinary school in recent years to experience difficult timing while setting up operations for an inaugural class. The program at Long Island University in New York is a case in point.

Accreditors paid a site visit to LIU in August 2018 and provided the letter of reasonable assurance in September 2019. Although the letter came nearly a year ahead of LIU's planned opening in August 2020, that was still late for the normal application cycle.

Rosenthal, former chair of the Clinical Department at LIU's veterinary school, explained, "Many new schools have a tight budget, and if the [accreditation letter] is delayed, the schools need to move forward with applications even if the letter comes at an inappropriate time."

The awkward timing has multiple implications. For one, "the best of the best students have already committed to a school" by the time the application window opens at the new school, she said, and many who remain interested and available are those who weren't accepted elsewhere or are on a waiting list.

A short timeframe also puts the school team under immense pressure. Rosenthal said: "The admissions committee is rushed ... overly taxed with making applicant decisions without the normal time to discuss each applicant and thoughtfully develop the class. Plus, at the same time, the faculty are working overtime to be ready with lectures [and] labs, since they have only weeks to put it all together ..."

The outlook isn't entirely bleak. Rosenthal said even some "best of the best" candidates may apply to a newly available school if the geography is right. "That happened to us at LIU," she recounted. "We had a handful of students who already had acceptance letters to other schools, but the possibility of going to a school on Long Island, maybe live at home and save money, was too good to pass up."

And sometimes, even excellent candidates are "for some crazy reason ... overlooked by their first choices," Rosenthal said, adding, "Some students mistakenly only apply to one school, limiting their chances of getting in, so if you catch those applications, they could be excellent students."

Summing up the effects of a delayed application period, Rosenthal said, "We were lucky enough to get a huge applicant pool for the first class, but typically, the pool is much smaller than normal and the choice applicants are gone."

The Utah program plan is to enroll 40 students in its first year, doubling to 80 in subsequent years.

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