An article in this week’s New York Times has been making the rounds in the veterinary community, with many of my vet school classmates posting a link to this article on Facebook. The article details one of the biggest crises in veterinary medicine: the crippling academic debt incurred by veterinary school graduates, the low starting salaries for new graduates and the dearth of veterinary jobs currently available in the United States.
The New York Times cites the following grim statistics: the median cost per year to attend veterinary school is $63,000 (which includes tuition, housing and expenses); most veterinary school graduates are burdened with $250,00 to $300,000 in academic loans. This number can be even higher for those with undergraduate loans. Equally alarming, the average starting salary for a new vet is less than $50,000 a year.
Couple this with the fact that most veterinary schools are increasing their class sizes dramatically, to compensate for budget shortfalls and cuts in state funding. More and more veterinarians are graduating then ever before, but the veterinary job market has contracted significantly since the economic downturn in 2008. There is a substantial surplus of veterinarians, and this is only expected to increase exponentially, despite the major shortfall of veterinary jobs in the United States.
When I graduated from veterinary school in 2005, I had multiple job offers. Fortunately, I had the luxury of choosing among several decent salary offers, all at well-respected hospitals in my community. Fast-forward to the present, when graduates of my alma mater (the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine) often have no job offers whatsoever, and yet are burdened with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans. Many vets are now forced to take low-paying, part-time jobs with no benefits, if they can find work at all.
The debt to salary ratio for veterinary graduates is unlike that in any comparable profession. Dentists, physicians and even pharmacologists graduate with less debt, and have much higher starting salaries (often double or triple that of veterinarians.) This makes the current situation for veterinary students untenable.
What is the solution to this alarming problem? There are no easy answers. It is essential that the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) not accredit any new veterinary schools in the United States, or accredit vet schools in other countries, such as recently done with the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Those of us in the industry need to appeal to our government representatives to provide the necessary funding for vet schools, in order to reduce student debt. Undergraduate students considering a career in veterinary medicine should do an honest assessment of what their loan burden might be, and whether those loans can be repaid on a veterinary salary.
All those who read this blog know how passionately I love being a veterinarian. And I do. I can’t imagine a more interesting, challenging and rewarding profession. I’m thrilled to do what I love. But the industry is changing. If someone asks me whether I would recommend that their son or daughter pursue a career in veterinary medicine, I have to pause. If family money enables a student to pay for veterinary school and not take on loans, then I think it’s possible to graduate and earn a decent living as a veterinarian. I know this is not the case for the vast majority of students, but until we solve this crisis, it may be too difficult for the majority of students to stay above water and not drown in debt.
There are many brilliant minds in the veterinary profession today; hopefully those brilliant minds can come together to create a solution to this crisis. Daily we work to ensure healthy futures for our patients; hopefully we can also work to ensure a healthy future for our profession!