As a veterinarian passionate about practical veterinary education and student debt, I have supported the brand new Midwestern University’s Veterinary College that opened this Fall in my backyard of Glendale, AZ. A piece of me, however, is apprehensive about the future of this student class (annual tuition is $52, 400 excluding living expenses) and this new generation of practitioners, as we try to navigate the seas of exorbitant student debt coupled with stagnant salaries. Even scarier, is that these challenges could be heightened by research that indicates we may not need an ever-increasing number of veterinarians.
In Atlantic’s September 2014 Education Issue, “The Law School Scam,“ examines the crisis in legal graduate education. My jaw dropped as I read this article and realized that this is not a veterinary or law school issue; this is a graduate education in America issue. However, if the legal profession (where I wrongly assumed everyone makes six figures) is burdened, where does that leave veterinary medicine, the lowest paid health profession?
The article, focuses on the for-profit InfiLaw school system, but highlighted some intimidating and parallel challenges that do not only apply to for-profit graduate institutions or law schools.
Problem 1: Student Debt
What % of veterinarians is making a salary large enough to take on $200K in debt?
The article states that financial advisors caution students not to take on more student debt than the anticipated salary of their first post-graduation job. In veterinary medicine we take on 240% (2.5x) our starting salary (JAVMA October 2013). This is just one major problem for the sustainability of our profession.
The Congressional Budget Office projected that Americans will incur $1.3 trillion in student loans over next 11 years, in addition to $1 trillion outstanding today. There is no cap on the amount of federal student loan totals; as long as the full cost of attendance (tuition and cost of living) published by the colleges rises, the debt level will rise alongside it (government has unlimited amount to loan to cover total cost of attendance). While our veterinary colleges are not abusing the student-loan system as Infilaw did, tuition overall is on the rise and the 2 newest vet schools are some of the most expensive.
If students cannot make enough to pay this monthly payment (and based on my experience even the graduated loan payment can be burdensome), should we be allowed to borrow this money? How is educational debt “good debt” if you cannot afford to pay it?
Problem #2 Jobs after graduation:
Only 36% of gradates from Infilaw school have full time long-term legal jobs. As the vet schools expand their class sizes to make up for cuts in state funding and support needed school upgrades, our profession also runs the risk of graduating too many veterinarians.
Problem 3: More educational opportunities
Just like veterinary medicine the number of legal jobs is not expanding at the same rate that educational opportunities are. Schools, however do not deem this as “their problem.” The argument of the new vet schools is that if a student’s dream is to become a veterinarian, why not provide the means to do so? Will schools continue opening to fulfill that dream? Two new veterinary schools that are private opened this Fall (Midwestern University and University) and a new vet school at University of Arizona could be opening in 2015.
The concept of social and professional responsibility does not seem to be at the forefront in either law or veterinary medical professions. Riddle me this, if law students can graduate without jobs and a debt-to-salary ration of >100%, what will prevent our profession from heading down this path?
Problem 4: Starting Salaries
Surprisingly, I learned that starting salary figures for lawyers are not all 6 figures. In fact it is only if you can obtain a position at one of the largest firms that law school at this cost makes financial sense. Lawyers have a bi-modal salary distribution and many lawyers make $40-65K vs the assumed 6 figures.
In veterinary medicine we our “bi-modal distribution could be equated to practice owners or specialists who make significantly more than associates. Unfortunately, not every vet can become a practice owner or a specialist, so where does that leave the students paying more for private school?
At Infilaw school, the odds of obtaining a 6 figure salary after graduation are <1% vs. 16% national average vs. 78% from Columbia. What if it does matter where you went to vet school in the future? Should vet schools start to publish salary data? What if graduates from the newer private institutions that cost 2-3x more than state schools, but are not highly regarded, suddenly start making less? While not currently a problem, it is all too possible.
Veterinary students may pass the NAVLE at a higher rate than Infilaw students pass the bar (Infilaw admits students that based on their LSAT are unlikely to pass the bar exam), but will they have a job? Will they have a job that allows them to have a quality of life?
Problem 5: Rising Tuition: In the case of law schools, which are highly profitable, it is hard to understand the reasoning why law schools have chosen to raise tuition rates. New England Law School, which used to pride itself on affordability and producing local lawyers, sounds a lot like almost every vet school over the past seven years. Between 2004-2014, it doubled tuition costs, and has been graduating larger classes despite the declining demand for legal services. Sound familiar?
Law schools have over promised and underperformed and I fear that veterinary colleges will in the near future enter into this trap. Could we produce graduates with no way to pay off their debt aka “The Law School Scam?” Based on the striking similarities, it is very likely.
While the parallels are intimidating, I am proud of our profession. When I was in school no practitioners or academicians wanted to discuss the problem of veterinary student debt. It was literally an elephant in the room; and, now it’s old hat. We hold panel discussions, articles, and help students create financial plans. Judging from the similarity between lawyers and veterinarians, however, we need to attack the problems from multiple angles, not just discuss it.
In my next post I will try to brainstorm some solutions to these issues.