Education costs, student debt top COE agenda

USDE verdict could help accrediting body shed troubled past

Published: September 15, 2016
By Jennifer Fiala

As the Council on Education waits to hear whether the federal government will lift its probation following four years of heavy scrutiny, the group aims to revise accreditation standards and explore making financial literacy a major component of veterinary education.

The COE, a 20-member volunteer body under the American Veterinary Medical Association, will gather Sept. 25 for a two-day meeting. On the agenda are revisions to three of the COE’s 11 accreditation standards — requirements for admission, faculty and curriculum — and a bid to create a new standard to ensure veterinary colleges provide applicants and students with greater information about the financial conditions they’ll face post graduation.

Also to be discussed is the COE’s relationship with the U.S. Department of Education, which authorizes it to act as the nation’s programmatic accreditor of veterinary programs. USDE ordered the COE in 2012 and 2014 to become more transparent, communicative and consistent in the application of standards. The directives followed complaints from hundreds of veterinarians who asserted that the COE operated in a vacuum, allowing AVMA politics to influence accreditation matters.

The COE has responded by making changes and distancing itself from the AVMA, though criticisms remain. One sticking point is the fact that the AVMA financially supports the accrediting body and controls its budget. 

The fiscal arrangement isn’t a problem for government officials. In June, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, a federal panel that advises USDE on accreditation matters, found the COE in compliance with government regulations. NACIQI recommended that USDE fully recognize the COE until 2017, when it’s again scheduled for review by the agency.

USDE is expected to make a final decision about the COE’s status within the next few weeks.

In the meantime, the COE is operating as usual, considering the accreditation of new programs — site visits are scheduled this fall at the University of Bristol and University of Cambridge, both in England — and reassessing accreditation standards per a regularly scheduled review cycle.

There’s also a proposal to create an entirely new standard, which the COE will mull at its September meeting. The COE hasn't added an accreditation requirement since 2002, when it called on accredited programs to measure student achievement, in part by tracking whether at least 80 percent of all seniors pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination.

The AVMA House of Delegates now wants the COE to consider making financial literacy just as important. Last month, the policymaking body approved a resolution initiated by the Student American Veterinary Medical Association, asking the COE to consider a standard that requires veterinary colleges to provide students and applicants with “clear and accurate information about the financial realities and costs of their education.” Anticipating the resolution, COE officials enlisted a working group to explore student indebtedness, COE chairman Dr. John Scamahorn said after the House meeting.

“We were already on that,” he stated, noting that a report from the working group is anticipated. 

SAVMA, whose members are more likely than not to spend decades making hefty monthly student loan payments, wants colleges to do more to counsel aspiring veterinarians. “This should include very specific details regarding their specific programs, options for financing such expenses, post graduate employment information, and finally income to debt ratios for new graduates of their programs,” the resolution said.

Adding or modifying accreditation standards is a multi-step process that’s laid out in the COE’s procedural guidelines. Once a change is proposed, the COE Committee for Academic Affairs considers how it might impact educational processes, student outcomes and the profession. The committee reports its findings to the full COE, and if a change is intended to be made, input is sought from stakeholders. Suggested changes in the standards are placed on the public section of the AVMA website requesting comments from the profession and the public, including deans of veterinary medical programs. If the COE ultimately decides to modify its accreditation standards, the change is reported to the AVMA Board of Directors and the House of Delegates. Deans are notified and given instructions on implementation. The profession is then notified through AVMA publications.

Talk of adding the standard on financial literacy is in the earliest stage; it can take more than a year to complete the COE's process.

An urgent need to tackle the profession’s debt-to-income ratio was conveyed on the House floor during the group's annual meeting Aug. 4-5 in San Antonio, Texas. Some delegates blamed ever-increasing tuition costs, with the priciest programs charging more than $50,000 a year to attend. Others wondered aloud whether students were living frugally or borrowing more than necessary. Many delegates voiced concern that veterinary education is losing financial support from state legislatures, which at one time provided enough funds to substantially offset the cost of public education. 

Vermont delegate Dr. Fred Baum attributed students' financial struggles to the cost of education, not careless spending. 

“There is no Wal-Mart of veterinary education out there; there is no cheap school,” he told delegates. “You can’t manage your way out of this by cutting out lattes.”

Following the funding

During a public meeting Aug. 7 that featured a panel of COE members, some veterinarians expressed a mistrust of how the accrediting body operates. Questions arose about COE’s budget, much of which comes from the AVMA’s Education and Research Division and is not transparent, even to some COE members. The AVMA allocated 4 percent of its $35.6 million budget in 2016 to the Education and Research Division; how much of that was spent on the COE specifically is impossible to determine from the AVMA treasurer's report. 

Dr. Mark Cox, a Texas delegate who's supported efforts to separate the two groups, called on AVMA and COE leaders to clarify their financial relationship.

Scamahorn responded: “COE is located in the Division of Education and Research staffed by AVMA staff, and a portion of the budget comes from within that division. What was the rest of the part of that question? Schools do contribute to the process of funding site visits.”

When asked to identify the percentage of the COE’s budget that’s funded by schools versus the AVMA, Scamahorn replied, “I can't tell you right off the top of my head.” He passed the question to Dr. Karen Brandt, director of the AVMA Education and Research Division.

Brandt, in turn, did not specify what percentage of the COE’s budget — the total amount was not revealed — comes from the AVMA. Roughly 2.8 staff members are assigned to the COE, she stated. She also noted that unaccredited veterinary medical programs outside of the United States and Canada pay 100 percent of the costs associated with seeking U.S. accreditation.

“All U.S. and Canadian schools pay 50 percent of both direct and indirect costs of accreditation,” Brandt explained.

AVMA Past-President Dr. Clark Fobian followed Brandt’s response with an accolade.

“…Surveys the AVMA have done of its membership put accreditation high on their list of what they value from AVMA. If we're able to provide that with less than three full-time staff, this is OK. I’m impressed with that, he stated.

Editorial update: The U.S. Department of Education renewed its recognition of the Council on Education, per a letter dated Sept. 22.  

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