Spotlight on Veterinary Student Debt Solutions: Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine

Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s delegates attended Michigan State University’s Fix the Debt Summit in 2016. They returned to the East Coast, acknowledging that significant thought and effort was being focused on the student debt problem at a national level. However, the College wanted to harness the profession’s initial findings and do more. They wished to broaden the search for additional solutions that would directly impact their students. They decided to form a DVM Educational Debt Task Force, co-chaired by Drs. Greg Daniel, Interim Dean, and Jennifer Hodgson, Associate Dean for Professional Programs. The Task Force comprised approximately 40 key contributors, including Dr. David Granstrom, a Veterinary Debt Initiative co-lead member and Assistant Executive Vice President of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). In January, the Task Force divided the issue into seven topics:

  1. DVM tuition rates and enrollment numbers
  2. Scholarships and other financial support for DVM students
  3. Cost effectiveness of curriculum delivery
  4. Student loan repayment plans
  5. Personal financial literacy and career counseling
  6. Accelerated pathways to DVM matriculation
  7. Innovation and entrepreneurship

Seven working groups investigated potential solutions to determine which could be implemented and have the greatest impact on student debt at the College. The several-month exercise was a true test of mettle—the Task Force produced a 47-page report of prioritized recommendations and specific action steps that were thoughtful, comprehensive and at times, unexpected.

Dr. Hodgson talked with the Veterinary Debt Initiative committee to discuss this feat and the successes the Task Force has so far:

VDI: Why did Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine try to tackle the problem of student debt?

Dr. Hodgson: On a global level, this problem didn’t happen overnight and there has been a slow progression of change from a variety of sources. Michigan State University organized the Fix the Debt Summit in 2016 to begin to try and address the issue and we felt we could take it further in our local context.   Our student body, led by Vincent Tavella (’19), started this off by organizing a weeklong Fix the Debt Summit II in the fall of 2017.  This comprised a series of lunchtime lectures delivered by both local and inter-state speakers.  The week finished with a tabletop exercise where students, faculty, local practitioners and other stakeholders discussed some of the critical points regarding student debt, and which became the framework for the Task Force.  We wanted the opportunity to dig a little deeper into these issues and see if we could come up with additional solutions.

VDI: The Task Force report stated that approximately 25% of your graduates do not borrow money and this number is increasing. Why do you think this is trending upward?

Dr. Hodgson: First, I must say we need to be careful. If the reason the percentage of students who do not borrow money is increasing is because there is a greater number of available scholarships, that’s fantastic. If that number is increasing because students are choosing to become veterinarians later in life, they have an established life, and can pay their fees and tuition, that is good, too. However, the potential problem is this—the profession could get to a point where you can only become a veterinarian if you have certain financial means, thus becoming a “Profession of Privilege.”  Being socio-economically disadvantaged should not be a barrier for applying and/or attending veterinary school. Student selection should be based on the attributes critical to being a successful veterinarian and not on whether you can pay for your education or not.  Diversity is important to veterinary medicine! The College is very passionate about having a very diverse group of students, including socio-economic diversity. It’s important; actually it’s crucial, to the profession.

VDI: A Task Force recommendation, identified as both a high priority and an action that is easy to implement, was to provide financial literacy and career counseling to DVM students. Have they been integrated into the College’s curriculum? Do they have a positive impact on the issue?

Dr. Hodgson: At the College, we provide students with a financial curriculum. It starts in Year 1 and continues into the fourth year. In the first two years all students receive significant personal financial instruction as well as fundamental concepts in business management and careers.  In their third year, we also offer a three-credit Veterinary Business Management course and a one-credit course in Careers in Veterinary Medicine.  This is the first year we have offered the Business Management Course and we were delighted with the interest shown by students where just under half the class enrolled in this elective.  In final year, students can also participate in a three-week clerkship where the students are embedded in small animal practices with a focus on practice management.  We’ve also expanded our extracurricular activities in entrepreneurship with the Veterinary Business Management Association (VBMA).   Finally, we also cover what else a student can do to enhance “onboarding,” such as negotiating their starting salaries, and what skills they could develop to improve their employability. We feel we have developed a good personal and business financial curriculum. However, we now need to go to the next level and determine if this education has made an impact in their professional lives.

VDI: The Task Force explored tuition from many different angles, such as increasing in-state tuition and decreasing out-of-state tuition or charging less for classroom teaching and more for clinical teaching. The options all required running different, complex financial scenarios. The bottom line is the students want to know, “why is tuition so high”?

Dr. Hodgson: This is a question that is on all of the students’ minds, and rightfully so.  However, at the end of the day, it is expensive to train veterinary students and this is the case all around the world.  In addition, all public universities have several missions that must be accomplished, where student tuition is only one source of income that is available to fulfill these goals.  All higher education is currently struggling with budgetary concerns, and veterinary education is no different.  Given these constraints, we run our curriculum as responsibly and cost effectively as possible.

VDI: Early entry into the DVM program was another Task Force recommendation that was deemed a high priority and that should be implemented immediately. What’s the latest update you can provide?

Dr. Hodgson:  Our early entry subgroup has been very active since our last meeting, and Dr. Jacque Pelzer, the chair of this group, has worked with the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) to develop a two-year program designed to prepare students for admission into our College.  This two-year curriculum includes all of our prerequisites and would allow for early entry into our program.  If a student was unsuccessful at gaining admission into our program, the student still has the option to transfer into any Virginia four-year public institution and apply to our program the following year.  The plan is to implement this program at a local Community College in the next academic year.  If the program is successful, we will work on a statewide program.

VDI: A Task Force working group analyzed student loan repayment plans and a key learning was that low interest rate loans may potentially be at risk in the future. Therefore, investigating ways to stabilize these loan repayments may be a way forward.  Where has this landed?

Dr. Hodgson: As a result of the work done by members of the Task Force, the concept of an alternate type of student loan repayment plan was brought to the attention of the AVMA.  It was recommended to investigate the development of a low interest loan program for veterinary students that is financially sustainable for the AVMA.  Due diligence has begun and Dr. Valerie Ragan, the College’s Director of the Center for Public & Corporate Veterinary Medicine, and her team have been contacted by the AVMA for further guidance.  Dr. Ragan’s group continues to investigate this plan

VDI: How can a student reduce the cost of education?

Dr. Hodgson:  Research the cost of attendance and choose the school that provides the least amount of debt load.  This is typically an in-state program, but not all states have veterinary professional programs.  All accredited veterinary programs are great programs, and the financial impact should be number one on the list when choosing a program.  Take advantage of any available scholarships, both within the college and externally.  It does take a bit of work to apply for scholarships, but you only receive scholarships if you apply for them.  Get as much information as you can and pay attention to the minimal amount you can borrow.  I would recommend taking on a part-time job if possible.  Students should ask, “If I look at the money I’m spending, are there better ways to spend it?” I would encourage students to be a little frugal, but at the same time just live within their means. Set up and stick to a budget. Develop a financial plan, but it’s really more like a lifetime plan, such as “how are you going to manage your debt over your career?”  Of course, make the most of the opportunities around you that can help reduce debt.

VDI:  Is a career in veterinary medicine a good return on investment?

 Dr. Hodgson: We do have to address the current debt issue and think outside the box.  We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing. But I’m an optimist and a career as a veterinarian can be a very fulfilling one! I would never discourage anyone from pursuing a career in veterinary medicine, but students need to be pragmatic about it. Prospective students should research the cost of education and make sound financial decisions regarding where they attend school, how they can manage their loans whilst they are at school, and familiarize themselves with the variety of opportunities within the profession.  We don’t want to paint this bleak picture of the profession, as the opportunities in veterinary medicine are tremendous.  As a veterinarian, you can do a wide variety of things—expand career opportunities—at the same time as doing economically well.

Dr. Jennifer L. Hodgson; BVSc(hons), DipVetPath, Diplomate ACVM, GradCertEdStud, PhD
Professor, Population Health Sciences
Associate Dean for Professional Programs
The Office of Academic Affairs
Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine