The figure is shocking, but I got off easier than most.
Let’s talk about student debt. This topic is old news, right? Well, yes it kind of is at this point, unfortunately. However, I want to talk specifically about veterinary student debt as it is a bit unique in terms of the sheer magnitude of it. So, how much debt are we talkin’? Well, pretty much a house. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the average veterinary student debt when I graduated from veterinary school in 2017 was about 138,000 dollars. You read that correctly, one hundred and thirty-eight thousand dollars.
Sure, it’s not a mansion, but it is a comfortable house to be sure. What’s more, is that this value also includes students who were able to go to veterinary school without any debt at all. The students with zero debt sourced money for their education from either personal accounts, family accounts, or scholarships and grants. Now, if you remove the students with zero debt from the figure, then the average debt on graduation increases to about $166,000. In my area, I could purchase a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, and 2200 square foot house for this amount of money. That assumes, of course, that I could make the down payment.
I believe that when people hear about student debt it provokes a very ambiguous figure in their mind depending on their own experiences. In general, for a four-year degree, student debt is substantially lower. In my graduation year, the average overall student debt was just over $37,000.
So, with this figure in mind, people are generally shocked to hear that the amount of student debt that I graduated with topped out around $100,000 in principal value. I was very fortunate that, by attending an in-state university, I had zero debt from my undergraduate work. Thus, the $100,000 of debt that I entered the workforce carrying was all from my veterinary specific education.
My loans are all Federal Direct Unsubsidized Student Loans, a common type of student loan offered by the United States Department of Education.
The unfortunate thing about this type of student loan is that it accrues interest throughout the time you are in school. Consequently, over the four years of veterinary school, the amount of money from loan interest is significant. The interest, thankfully, does not capitalize until your loan transitions into repayment. The repayment period started, for me, about six months after graduation.
During school, I was constantly applying for scholarships and other income streams to offset this interest. I worked when I could, but was unable to hold even a part-time job. In total, I was able to secure nearly $40,000 in scholarship money. Still, the interest on my student loans when they entered repayment in November 2017 was about $12,000. This left me with a total of $112,000 in debt when I began my veterinary career.
Veterinary schools have been making strides to improve the transparency in their fees as well as to promote programs to help veterinary students cope with and understand their debt load. This is an excellent step in the right direction. I had the helpful opportunity at Colorado State University to meet, for free, with a financial advisor to guide me towards the best repayment options for my debt situation. This service is extremely important because there are graduates leaving school with over $200,000 in debt or more. A classmate of mine graduated with almost $350,000 in debt in 2017. This amount of debt is nearly insurmountable on an average veterinarian salary (which tends to be around $76,000 out of school), especially in a standard repayment format. A level of debt this massive also eliminates the ability of somebody to just, “Buck up, and work through it.” One can not simply live cheaply and pay their loans down quickly when the minimum monthly payment exceeds their monthly income.
Why is this important? Well, it’s important, nay paramount, because there is no end in sight for tuition increases*. Furthermore, the expected salary for veterinarians is not increasing at a rate to match the increasing tuition and debt load that is required to obtain the degree. Each of the four years that I was in veterinary school, the annual tuition increased by at least $1,000.
I recognize that the easy solution is to just encourage people to not attend veterinary school. “If you don’t have a plan in place to cope with the student debt, or minimize your student debt, then this may not be the career for you.” However, this is a dangerous mindset, as I feel it will tend to unfairly exclude people from families or backgrounds that may not have as much ability to support students seeking higher education. I envision the largest negative impact would inevitably affect minority groups and first-generation college students.
The reality is that this would further limit the veterinary profession’s diversity and accessibility. A survey done by the AVMA in the early 2000s found that the veterinary profession is greater than 90% white. Demographics have improved to a significant extent; however, the veterinary student population is currently still exceedingly white.
There are certainly multiple factors at play beyond just the cost of education contributing to this lack of diversity. The point of this article is student debt which is rampant in the united states and significant in veterinary medicine. It is setting people up for failure, and I believe we are approaching a dangerous tipping point. There need to be real solutions posited beyond just, “Well, don’t go to veterinary school.”
One cure that is commonly suggested, is to create some competition amongst the veterinary schools for students. In theory, if there is a larger pool of veterinary schools then students can be more selective with where they choose to go. This would then potentially drive universities to reduce the price of tuition a little to invite more interest in their spots.
Unfortunately, I don’t foresee this being a reasonable option anytime soon. Veterinary training is not conducive to large class sizes, contrary to many undergraduate degrees. As a result, most schools limit the number of students in each incoming class.
This limitation has the byproduct of keeping the supply of available seats below the demand. I went to Colorado State University, and I graduated with 136 total people in my class which is larger than many of the other schools. If class sizes are generally capped at a little over 100 students and the school is getting upwards of 500 applications each year; there is little motivation to adjust the price. The people who get accepted into the program are so happy to finally be accepted that the price rarely reaches receptive ears.
The schools are still extremely competitive because more people would like to become veterinarians than we have seats to fill. The acceptance rate into veterinary school is just around 12% of applicants in a given cycle. Therefore, attending your best financial option is not always going to be realistic. While, in theory, adding more schools to drive some competition makes sense, realistically it does not pan out that way.
In agreement with this idea, there are two new veterinary schools that have received their accreditation and the ability to begin accepting students. Neither one; however, offers any sort of competitive advantage in terms of cost of attendance. Long Island University (LIU) and the University of Arizona (U of A) were both approved to open their schools. The expected yearly tuition at LIU is $55,000 which is on par with many currently operating schools. However, the cost of living on Long Island is significantly higher than in many of the other veterinary school locations, so the expected cost of education is likely to be between $76,000 and $86,000 a year.
U of A is not much different, with expected tuition alone of around $69,000 a year. These figures are for out of state students, so in-state students will be in a little better shape. There are 28 veterinary schools in the United States and the addition of these two will bring the total to 30. A total of 30 schools translates to an inability for all people to meet an in-state requirement.
While competition is a reasonable solution to the debt crisis, it would be impossible to increase the number of veterinary schools to match the demand for veterinary students. Doing so, would likely just result in a hitch on the other side of the equation. There would be a surplus of graduating veterinarians, generating hundreds of additional veterinarians each year resulting in lower salaries and higher unemployment. Nonetheless, it is a shame to see veterinary schools opening now that are offering to put new veterinary students into the same boat as the rest of us.
I decided to write this article for a few reasons, but the primary one is that I hope to shine some light on a category of student debt that is often unrecognized or overlooked. Many people do not realize that veterinary school is a four-year program following undergraduate education, let alone that it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend. Beyond this, I want to broach the subject so that I can speculate on potential fixes in the future, as well as discuss other economic aspects of the veterinary profession.
Since I began working as a private practice veterinarian I have been surprised at how often money is part of the conversation with my clients.
I receive questions not just about how much a service will cost, but how much money I will be making off of it. In my memory, a veterinarian was always a person to be trusted. A person that would bend over backward for you and your pet. However, it seems things may have shifted to a more skeptical view of what veterinarians are doing, and it seems that money drives some of this skepticism.
Student loans affect millions of people in the United States, totaling over 1.4 trillion dollars, according to AVMA stats in 2018. Student loan debt from veterinarians in 2017 was about 400 million dollars alone which constitutes a significant portion of the overall total.
I want to also stress that there is a clear benefit to student loans, at least in the current educational system in the United States. While I feel there is an obvious need for improvement, it must not be overlooked that a student loan is still a way to invest in yourself. This single fact powered my choice for the featured image. The money from student loans allows an individual to finance themselves. They can foster themselves to grow, both personally and professionally, using the assistance of these loan programs. There is much work to be done on improving the student loan system in the United States; however, it did offer me an opportunity I would not have had otherwise.
*Much of the financial information presented here is subject to change as years progress and more data is obtained. This is my experience with student loans. The AVMA published this article https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2018-01-01/divided-debt which provides very useful information about the state of the veterinary profession as a whole. I drew upon this article for several of the discussion points in this article.