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Friday, January 20, 2017

The High Cost Of Becoming A Vet

I haven't written about veterinary education costs in quite a while, and unfortunately there has been no improvement in the situation.  It is still extremely expensive to become a vet and salaries still remain very low, resulting in some significant challenges and hardships as young, new vets struggle to try and repay their loans while maintaining a moderate lifestyle.
Dr. Julie Funk, an Associate Dean and Professor at Michigan State University, recently wrote an article about this issue.  Here are some choice quotes. 
"A 2013 national survey of DVM graduates found the average debt for students was as high as US$162,113. This is similar to the average educational debt of $180,723 accrued by physicians in 2015. However, physicians have much higher lifetime earnings than veterinarians, making it easier for them to manage their debt.
It is true at the beginning of their careers, salaries for veterinarians and physicians are quite comparable: Veterinarians get, on average, a full-time starting salary of $67,136 annually. Physicians, who pursue residencies for advanced specialty training under supervision, soon after graduation, earn an average first-year salary of $52,200.
However, this changes over the years. The lifelong earning potential of physicians improves significantly in comparison with veterinarians. Over a period of time, the overall median salary of a physician gets to $187,200, whereas that of a veterinarian remains at about $88,490.
The situation is worse for women. Female veterinarians, on average, will not even break even on their educational investment until they are well past the age of 65 (or older)."
That last statement is particularly troubling since in the US 75-80% of veterinary classes are female.  How bad is it that they aren't likely to even break even on their education costs until they retire around 40 years later???
The future for veterinary students is not promising, as Dr. Funk points out later in the article.
"As a result of the growth in the colleges of veterinary medicine, more seats are available. (What is decreasing, however, is the applicant-to-seat ratio.) Two new colleges are seeking accreditation, while the existing ones are boosting class size. This expansion is happening in the face of the 2013 Veterinary Workforce Study that estimates that there is an excess of veterinary labor nationally.
High tuition, low wages, an oversupply of veterinarians and more seats to study veterinary medicine are strong signals of a veterinary education market bubble."
What these facts indicate is that's there are more people entering the field, yet on a national average there are more vets than are needed.  Colleges are increasing the number of students they accept and new schools are being built, yet there is no need to expand the number of newly graduated veterinarians.  In the end this may very well result in a glut of veterinarians, which could cause lower wages as employers can pick new hires who are willing to work for less and those new hires will accept it because there are fewer job opportunities.
For most of us veterinary medicine isn't just a job, it's a calling.  I started wanting to be a vet when I was nine years old, and that's typical of most of us in the profession.  When your heart desires something so strongly it becomes hard to resist and look at the reality of the situation. 
The veterinary colleges and national organizations have had numerous discussions, debates, panels, and reports over the last 10 years or so, but so far all I've seen is more of the same information and confirmation of previous information.  For many years we keep seeing the outcome of these various studies as "Yep, debt is worse, salaries are no better, the problem is literally a crisis, and it's not getting better in the near future."  Well, we know that by now.  What we're lacking in the profession is a consensus of how to solve this crisis.  Maybe we should be shrinking class size rather than expanding them.  Maybe we should be closing schools rather than opening new ones.  Perhaps if there were fewer vets entering the workforce we would see salaries rise as competition increased. 
Some have suggested looking at a model where an undergraduate and graduate degree are obtained at the same time.  Currently virtually everyone first spends an average of four years obtaining a Bachelor's degree, then another four years for their veterinary doctorate.  Much of that undergraduate education is spent on classes intended to make someone well rounded but that doesn't have anything to do with the career.  I took two semesters of calculus in college, but I couldn't tell you what I learned or how it might be useful.  I can guarantee that in 20 years as a vet I've never had any cause to use the information in those classes.  As much as I enjoyed my literature and history courses they really have never applied to my career.  If the first 2-3 years of college were strictly pre-veterinary courses and then the last 3-4 years were on veterinary education itself you could reduce the time to become a vet by about two years.  That means two years of tuition and other expenses that you don't have to pay, and don't go into debt over!  Make the education year-round without summers off and some have speculated that you could become a vet in as little as five years!  There are pros and cons to this proposal, but it's one being considered.  Unfortunately I don't think it would be accepted by the majority of veterinary colleges or the veterinary licensing entities, so something like this in the US is probably a long way off.
I know that it's very depressing and disheartening, but I honestly can't recommend this as a good time to go into veterinary medicine.  Student debt load is quickly increasing while at the same time starting salaries are stagnant or even decreasing.  These horrible facts are not likely to change in the next few years.  I know that young people with a passion to be a vet will read these words and potentially despair.  Yes, the future is a little bleak if you haven't actually become a vet yet.  If someone still chooses to follow that dream I would strongly encourage them to be VERY good at budgeting, realize the huge amount of debt they will have coming out, and even consult a professional financial planner.
I'm just glad I graduated 20 years ago when it wasn't nearly as bad as it is now.