Summit takes on vet student debt

Participants from across veterinary profession gather to identify ways to alleviate student debt.

Veterinary student debt is an increasingly critical issue that can be alleviated by employing a number of different approaches, from a streamlined curricula to increasing scholarship opportunities, higher starting salaries, lobbying federal lawmakers for legislation to lower interest rates on student loans and creating a national plan for reducing the debt-to-income ratio (DIR).

These were among the recommendations offered by a group of committed participants in the "FIX THE DEBT ... Our Future, Our Responsibility" summit as the profession works to find ways to reduce the burden on students and veterinarians alike.

The summit — organized jointly by the American Veterinary Medical Assn. (AVMA), Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) and Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine — brought together approximately 180 individuals, including veterinary students and recent graduates, plus representatives from veterinary medical colleges, veterinary employers, government agencies and veterinary associations.

The participants tackled student debt and other financial issues that affect young veterinary professionals. The collective goal over the three-day summit was to agree on specific strategies to address the many facets of this complex challenge with the goal of reducing the DIR, which is an indicator of the financial health of the veterinarian entering the profession.

According to AVMA, the DIR currently stands at about 2:1, representing a level of educational debt approximately twice the level of starting income.

Dr. John Baker, dean of the Michigan State College of Veterinary Medicine, warned that the ratio of student debt to graduate starting salary is the biggest challenge facing veterinary medicine and is increasing to a level where it may affect the number and quality of students applying for a veterinary medical education.

He added that the single biggest factor behind the issue is the decrease in public funding for higher education.

The DIR problem "has been discussed many times over the past several decades and is certainly not new," Baker said. "However, what is new is the current size of the problem. Strategies to improve the DIR for veterinary graduates must come from every corner of the profession, from educational institutions to veterinary organizations."

AVMA president Dr. Joe Kinnarney emphasized the need to recognize educational debt as more than just a financial issue. It is creating not only a tremendous economic burden on students and recent graduates, but it is also having a negative effect on their professional well-being and mental health.

Kinnarney noted that AVMA’s first-ever wellness roundtable, which took place in March and was attended by a group of about 40 from across the profession, left an important take-away: Urgent action on educational debt is essential to alleviate serious wellness issues.

Dr. Andrew Maccabe, AAVMC executive director, acknowledged that fixing the existing economic situation in veterinary education will require a determined, sustained effort, possibly some risk taking and, without a doubt, ongoing collaboration.

“The student debt problem did not happen overnight, and we are not going to solve it overnight. However, I feel that ... holding each other accountable along the way are positive steps toward making debt less of a burden for our students and veterinarians in the years to come," Baker said.

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