Tuition hikes flatten as high cost of veterinary school gains attention

Deans explore ways to contain students' expense, debt

Published: August 26, 2014
By Rianna Hidalgo

Before the University of Minnesota Board of Regents met to establish tuition for the coming year, Dr. Trevor Ames, dean of the veterinary college, arranged for members to speak with veterinary students face-to-face.  

“I wanted them to understand the issues surrounding student debt and tuition,” Ames said, “and I wanted them to hear it directly from students.”  

In a conference room in the Raptor Center, a student sat with two regents and described the kind of debt she and her fiancé were taking on to pursue veterinary medicine — a career they had yearned for since they were kids — and the career choices they faced based on that debt. She explained that she was pursuing board certification to increase her earning power in order to have a chance at paying off their combined debt of roughly $300,000.  

Her story may have made an impression. In June, the board approved a tuition freeze for all veterinary students. This September, for the first time in years, veterinary students at the University of Minnesota in September will see tuition remain flat.  

Freezes are just one tactic administrators across the country are exploring to address the high cost of a veterinary degree and the colossal debt students take on to pay for it. Deans also have pursued more scholarship dollars, stepped up financial education, enlarged class sizes and tried to avoid tuition hikes by cutting expenditures and boosting revenue from sources other than students, among other things. While tuition increases have slowed a bit over the past few years, the question of how to ensure a healthy financial future for the profession is a debate that rages on, in the United States and beyond.  

“We are very concerned about the rising cost of education and the increasing educational debt,” said Dr. Andrew Maccabe, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC). “The good news is that government leaders and policymakers are beginning to recognize the gravity of the problem and talk about how we are going to solve it.”  

What’s the status?

Compared with the past decade, the rate of tuition increase at U.S. veterinary colleges during the past few years has been relatively low. Analysis of figures obtained from the AAVMC show that since 2011, resident tuition has increased an average of 4.5 percent per year, while non-resident tuition has increased an average of 3.2 percent. From 2012 to 2013, several colleges had no increases or even slight decreases.

This trend is a microcosm of public higher education, as most U.S. veterinary colleges are part of public universities. According to the College Board, last year’s 2.9 percent tuition increase for resident undergraduates at four-year colleges was the smallest in 30 years.  

Maccabe and several deans attributed this to an improving post-recession economy and a leveling-out of state funds after years of deep cuts.

“The financial picture has been much better in the last couple years,” said Dr. Douglas Jasmer, associate dean for student and academic affairs at the Washington State University veterinary college.

But as the College Board notes in the report Trends in College Pricing 2013, “this does not mean that college is suddenly more affordable,” and it certainly doesn’t offer much relief to veterinary students, a rising proportion of whom borrow in excess of $200,000 to enter a profession with a relatively low starting salary. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the average educational debt in 2013 was $162,113, up 6.9 percent from 2012.

(Among those with debt, 26.7 percent reported having debt greater than $200,000 — a significant bump since 2007, when only 2.8 percent borrowed at that level.)

Data from the AAVMC shows annual tuition and fees for 2014 at the 28 established veterinary programs in the United States ranges from $16,546 to $49,595 for residents and $25,899 to $63,291 for non-residents.

The data do not include Lincoln Memorial University and Midwestern University, private schools with new veterinary programs matriculating their first classes this fall. The universities' websites show tuition and fees at $40,896 and $53,000, respectively, regardless of residency.

The sweeping trend for the past 30 years has been a steady increase in tuition that far outpaces inflation; in January 2012, the AAVMC reported that tuition had nearly doubled in a decade.

Here is a snapshot of some extremes since 2000:  

  • Resident tuition at the University of Florida has increased an average of 13 percent per year.
  • Non-resident tuition at the University of Missouri has increased an average of 15 percent per year. For the period through 2014, the increase is 423 percent, from $9,980 to $52,200.
  • Resident tuition at Kansas State University has increased 308 percent, from $5,674 to $23,176.

Administrators ascribe the increases to rising costs of providing medical education coupled with cuts in state funding. Despite the recent stabilization in state funds, the College Board reports that public four-year institutions still received 27 percent less per full-time undergraduate in 2012 than they did five years earlier.  

At veterinary colleges, the AAVMC found that in 2012, there was a cumulative state funding shortfall of $104 million over the previous two years.  

The holdouts may succumb

The rare schools that have managed to keep tuition down in the face of state cuts are now considering tuition hikes.

The University of Wisconsin is an anomaly where tuition has increased far less and far slower than at other veterinary colleges. Since 2000, tuition at the University of Wisconsin has risen by an average of 2.5 percent per year for residents and 1.8 percent for non-residents.

But Dr. Mark Markel said he feels the need now to raise tuition to cope with what he called a “painful and difficult situation” in trying to deliver the desired quality of education.   

“We faced those (state) budget cuts without tuition (increases) to offset it … it was kind of like water torture,” said Markel, who was appointed as dean in 2012.

Markel said the result was damaging slashes in staff positions, from hospital faculty to office managers and research support.  

“We got to the point where we had almost no staff support for the research and activities that we are trying to do,” he said. “I’d like us to stay significantly below average (in cost), but we know that for us to be able to do what we need to do to educate, we need to at least get back to where we were in revenue 10 years ago.”  

At the University of Tennessee, where tuition at the veterinary college has increased more than 30 percent in the past five years, Dean James Thompson said he doesn’t see an alternative to bumping tuition.  

“When I take a look at the whole package of operating — salary needs and infrastructure needs and so forth — and the state isn’t putting in additional resources,” he said, “the only option I’ve got is to reach toward the students to help me meet the need."

But he doesn't feel comfortable about the rising cost of schooling. “It’s getting high,” Thompson acknowledged. “I worry about it.”  

With debt ever-increasing, some worry that the cost of education will reach a tipping point. When, if ever, will students decide that getting a veterinary education is just too expensive?  

The idea is not far-fetched. The American Bar Association Journal reported last month that law-school applications are down 37 percent since 2010, and that the incoming first-year class could be the smallest in 40 years. The enrollment bust followed attention-catching news articles about the plight of law-school graduates saddled with heavy debt and no jobs in their chosen profession — articles such as “Is Law School a Losing Game?” in the New York Times

Aspiring veterinarians aren’t scared off to date, not according to Maccabe and deans across the country. Veterinary-applicant numbers have continued to increase overall, from 4,453 in 2003 to 6,732 in 2013.  

“We have no evidence that candidates are not applying to veterinary school because they perceive that the cost of tuition is too high,” Maccabe said.   

Although cost may not be deterring prospective veterinarians, several deans reported that finances seem to play a larger role as students make their final decisions about where to attend. One student told the VIN News Service last year that she opted not to attend what had been her first-choice school due to the expense. Another prospective student said she planned to apply to programs based upon their affordability.

Exploring options

Tuition in public institutions typically is set at the university level, so most veterinary colleges do not determine their own price tags. They do, however, make budget recommendations, and administrators reported exploring several methods to reduce costs.  

“Most veterinary schools are doing everything possible to limit tuition increases,” said Dr. Sheila Allen, dean of the University of Georgia veterinary college. “When the deans get together, it’s always the first thing on the agenda: How are we going to maintain the quality of the educational experience, yet minimize cost for students?”  

Some approaches, such as the tuition freeze at the University of Minnesota, have been possible only with additional state funds. An initial university-wide freeze for undergraduate resident students, implemented last year, was the result of a $42 million one-time investment by the governor and the state legislature.  

This year’s freeze will save veterinary students from what likely would have been an increase of about 3 percent, Ames said. The college also will continue an 8-percent tuition reduction for senior-year students, a discount implemented in 2013.  

“Obviously, I’d like to be able to do this repeated years,” he said, adding, “Ideally, it wouldn’t just be freezing, it would be reducing.”

At the University of Tennessee, veterinary administrators eliminated tuition for the summer semester of senior year, saving resident students roughly $11,000 and non-resident students $23,000, Thompson said.  

In the face of stagnant state funds or continued slashes, administrators look to trim costs and gain revenue by other means.  

At the University of Georgia, where resident tuition is comparatively low, Allen said a combination of decreasing expenditures, increasing private giving and boosting revenue from the teaching hospital and research has helped compensate for limits in state funding.  

Veterinary administrators at the University of California, Davis, have turned to aggressively pursuing philanthropic supporters to raise dollars for scholarships. The idea is that scholarships offset tuition hikes by reducing what students must pay — an amount the university refers to as “net tuition.” While UC Davis’s published tuition rate has gone up by roughly $3,400 over the past three years, the school reports that net tuition has remained flat during that period. 

Last year, the college boosted scholarship awards by $300,000, for a total of $2.3 million. It reports that more than 90 percent of students receive scholarships, fellowships or grants worth a collective $6.5 million.  

Dr. Sean Owens, associate dean for student programs, said the college made a commitment three years ago not to “balance the budget on the backs of the students” during a period of consistent state cuts.  

“Our development department has done a phenomenal job of talking to people in the community and getting them to understand how valuable this is,” Owens said. “One of four years here is essentially paid for.”  

While many deans reported growing scholarships, most said those dollars aren’t keeping up with tuition hikes.  

At the University of Illinois, veterinary-college administrators have discussed instituting “tuition guarantees,” so students have a locked-in price for all four years. Dr. Jonathan Foreman, associate dean for academic and student affairs, said the only way to afford this would be to overcharge students for the first couple years.
“I think we will continue to study the numbers,” Foreman said, “But we don’t have the means to implement it any time soon. We are all state-appropriated schools, and I think we are all very fearful of getting locked into something and finding out three years later that we really can’t afford it.”  

An international concern

The United States is not the only country wrestling with how to provide a quality veterinary education at a manageable price. Overseas, the concerns are the same: high student debt, relatively low starting salary, and policy changes that shift the cost-burden to students.  

In Australia, a proposal to deregulate tuition and cut government funding for higher education by 20 percent has Dr. Julia Nicholls, the president of the Australian Veterinary Association, on edge.  

“We are genuinely quite fearful of the effect this may have on future veterinarians,” Nicholls said. “For many reasons, we think veterinary science students will be the worst affected by these changes." A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald outlines the reasons.

The government currently caps a veterinary student’s tuition contribution at AU$10,085 ($9,405), then contributes an additional AU$21,273 per student. If the legislation passes, universities would set their own fees, and the Commonwealth would contribute AU$18,067 per student. Meanwhile, loan interest would be linked to government bond rates with a cap of 6 percent, rather than inflation.  

Policymakers say the change would encourage competition based on quality and innovation. But people such as Nicholls say the double-whammy of higher tuition and lesser government subsidy will mean too much debt for students, bringing closer that ever-feared “tipping point.”

“They are young and enthusiastic and bright, and they want to work with animals,” Nicholls said. “But I think maybe this may be the point where they think, ‘I really can’t do this.’ ”  

Veterinary students in the United Kingdom also are seeing rising tuition costs. In 2012, the government raised the cap from £3,290 to £9,000 (a difference of about $9,500), and many universities, including the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), immediately charged full price, citing reduced government funding.  

Cap increases have been controversial, prompting violent student protests on one hand and outrage that the cap isn’t sustainable or high enough to cover rising costs, on the other.  

Since the legislation took effect, universities in the U.K. have seen consistent drops in overall applicant numbers. But Dr. David Church, vice principal of learning and student experience, said that contrary to the trend in other programs, veterinary applications at the RVC have increased — perhaps more evidence that aspiring veterinarians are willing to pursue their passion regardless of cost.  

Even if tuition caps rise again, Church said he believes students in the U.K. are a long way off from the kind of debt  students in the United States see, thanks to lower general fees, a shorter period of required schooling to earn a veterinary degree and loan caps.   

“It’s not likely — not in the near or even distant future,” he said. “There needs to be some level of linkage or rationalization between what students pay for an education and what potential earning leverage they get out of that education.”  

In Canada, tuition and debt continue to increase, though not at the same level as in the United States. According to Statistics Canada, last year’s average tuition for veterinary students was CA$6,628 ($6,083), a 3.8 percent increase over the year before.

Tuition is regulated at the provincial level, so both policy and cost vary significantly: In Quebec, 2013 tuition was CA$2,305; on Prince Edward Island, it was CA$11,325.  

Dr. Douglas Freeman, dean of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, is an American veterinarian who spent most of his 31-year career working in the U.S. higher education system before moving to Canada in 2010.  

At Western, roughly three-quarters of the school’s operating costs come from provincial funding, Freeman said.  

“We don’t rely on tuition in the same way U.S. schools have had to in order to balance their budgets,” Freeman said. “We are very fortunate in that way: Government support for advanced education has remained strong in Canada.”  

Average overall student debt estimates are in the mid- to high-CA$20,000 range, a number that, while paling in comparison with that of the United States, still prompts hefty criticism domestically.

“We are as concerned about student debt as schools in the U.S.,” Freeman said. “The debt burden is less because our tuition is less, but it is still significant.”  

Girding for the future

Across the board, administrators seem to be stepping up their efforts to educate incoming veterinary students about tuition, debt and career prospects.  

“We’re really trying to counsel our students on careful budgeting and actually looking at the cost-benefit of the profession,” said Dr. Keven Flammer, associate dean and director of academic affairs at the North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine. “We need them to be more financially educated so they can position themselves in the marketplace for the type of lifestyle they want. I think the more spotlight we put on the cost and salary ratios in the profession, the better.”  

In 2012, the AAVMC released a Student Debt Initiative Report in which it outlined recommendations for financial education.

Elizabeth Johnson, a third-year veterinary student at the University of Tennessee serving as Economics Officer Elect in the Student American Veterinary Medical Association (SAVMA), stated at a Pet Healthcare Industry Summit this month in Portland, Oregon, that students appear increasingly aware of issues of personal finance. “I hear that so much more from my peers,” Johnson said. “That’s something I see as an improvement.”

Similarly, Dr. Alejandro Garcia, a researcher at the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an international online community for the profession, said he perceived a new level of financial awareness from students at this year’s SAVMA symposium held in March in Denver. Garcia showed students an interactive digital map displaying the cost of attendance at the 30 veterinary programs in the United States, plus three in the Caribbean that draw heavily from the U.S. Developed by the VIN Foundation, the map ranks the programs by affordability. 

“Overall and compared with previous years, students seem more concerned about the cost of their education and more knowledgeable about starting salaries and the reality of the profession,” Garcia said by email.  

With that knowledge, students, policymakers and administrators are still looking for the best ways to hack the situation. Most deans interviewed expressed frustration that their efforts haven’t been enough to prevent the cost of education from shifting more and more to students.  

“If we don’t address this, it’s going to be a profession dominated by those who can afford it,” said Owens, an associate dean at UC Davis. “If diverse groups of people aren’t choosing this profession because of barriers of entry that we could have done something about, then shame on us.”  

Deans across the country spoke hopefully of a day that they’d be able to increase tuition to keep pace with inflation — and no more.

Said Tennessee’s Thompson: “I’d feel good about that.”

This story has been changed to remove a reference to an online resource that is no longer available.

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