How to Fix the Veterinarian Student Loan Debt Problem
[Editor’s Note: The following post was submitted by a veterinarian who blogs anonymously at Richer Life DVM. We have no financial relationship. Pediatricians think I pick on them a lot, but the truth is that when I am asked to pick out a profession with a terrible return on the investment of their education, veterinarians and attorneys top my list (vets due to the high debt to income ratio and lawyers due to the difficulty graduates face to get any job at all, much less a high paying one.) In this well-written piece, we explore the financial issues veterinarians and their trainees face. Lest you think this does not apply to you, realize that this may very well be analogous to the situation facing MD/DO/DDS/DMD students a decade from now.]
I would like to shine a light on a group of passionate, dedicated individuals: veterinarians. On the surface, this seems like the perfect career choice for someone who is interested in animals and animal health. Getting paid to wear the white coat AND the opportunity to work with all creatures great and small? I was a late bloomer and did not decide to pursue veterinary medicine until I was in college, but once I made that connection, the decision was a no-brainer.
Veterinarian Health and Wellbeing
However, according to the 2018 Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study, it is clear that veterinarians don’t have such a rosy view of their own profession. Only 41% of them would recommend this profession to their friends or family. This number drops to 24% for veterinarians aged 34 and younger. For comparison, 51% of physicians would recommend going into medicine. Those without student debt (unsurprisingly) seemed to have a more positive outlook on life than their debt-laden counterparts.
Why so glum, you ask? These are the same people that professed their love for animals and followed their passion. They have the great privilege of helping those who have no voice. Plus, they get to play with puppies and kittens all day, right?
Not so fast.
Rising Debt-to-Income Ratio
When it comes to wellbeing, it’s not unexpected to see that economic issues can play a significant role. When looking at the numbers, it is clear that the numbers are not in favor of the veterinary profession. According to a 2013 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, veterinarians have the highest debt-to-income (DIR) ratio amongst all health professionals at 1.6:1.
The most recent DIR based on the AVMA Senior Survey for the class of 2017 is now 1.86:1. The following data has been taken from the annual AVMA & AAVMC Report on the Market for Veterinary Education.
This latest DIR takes into account the increasing number of students that graduated with no debt, Taking a closer look at the numbers behind the ratio, the mean debt for graduating veterinary students was $138,000, including those that graduated with no debt. When you exclude these students, the mean debt is just under $170,000. Meanwhile, the mean income for new veterinarians across the board is $76,130.
As a college student, I had a vague idea that pursuing this degree would be expensive, but I just assumed that my future income would be enough to cover the debt. I was financially independent of my parents after graduating from college, and I happened to be the first in my family to attend professional school. Being essentially clueless about finances and the ins and outs of student loans, I proceeded to do what many students do: I borrowed as much I could because wages from part-time work and summer jobs certainly weren’t enough to cover the costs. I graduated in 2003 with a DIR of 2:1, saddled with debt that was scheduled to be paid off in 30 years.
To see that many new graduates are dealing with much higher debt burdens 15 years later is disconcerting, to say the least.
Why is the DIR So High for Vets?
The DIR seems like a simple concept as it only takes into account two numbers and how they relate to one another. But actually analyzing the WHY behind these numbers takes a bit more effort. The number behind the debt side of the ratio can be explained mostly by the cost of education, and as we all know, tuition and fees have been rising for all postsecondary education at a rate that far outpaces inflation. Then there is the income number, which is determined by the value that society places on the services provided by the veterinarian. It would be easy to look at the macroeconomic forces that impact these numbers and conclude that the situation is hopeless.
So what would be the consequences of a static or increasing DIR? You will have a profession that will have an applicant pool that skews towards those from a higher socioeconomic background, as they will be the only ones that can afford the cost of education. This will translate to a less diverse veterinary workforce, which would be a huge disservice to the profession as a whole. Although the majority of veterinarians in the workforce are private practitioners, there are also vets that work in the public and corporate sectors, which includes academia, government jobs, uniformed services, and industry. As it stands, veterinarians are already quite homogeneous when it comes to race and gender. Whites make up 97% of the veterinary workforce, and 80% of veterinary students are female. As a society, we benefit if those in this profession come from different backgrounds in order to accommodate the incredibly diverse work that veterinarians provide to our communities.
At the individual level, a high DIR simply means that you have less discretionary income. This may affect your ability to get approved for loans, such as a car loan or a mortgage. It can potentially negatively affect your credit score. Some people may delay major milestones such as marriage or children due to debt. It is not a stretch to say that this can all have a negative impact on wellbeing.
The upward trend of the DIR has not been lost upon the veterinary community. As a result, the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) and the AAVMC (Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges) co-sponsored the Fix the Debt Summit in 2016 to address these very issues. The goal is to reduce the current DIR to a more manageable 1.4:1. Here is a list of strategies that were discussed during the summit:
- Increasing scholarship endowments
- Enhancing student financial literacy
- Streamlining the veterinary school curriculum
- Advocating to governments
- Minimizing the cost of borrowing
- Building professional skills and competencies
- Improving workplace on-boarding
- Focusing on preventive medicine
- Increasing practice ownership literacy
- Expanding career option awareness
As seen in this list, there will be an inordinate amount of collaboration and effort in order to reach the goal of lowering DIR. Most of these strategies, if implemented, will take months to years in order to take effect. They mostly aim to solve this issue at a macro level.
What appeals to me are the strategies that would make the most immediate impact at the individual level, which would include enhancing student financial literacy and practice ownership literacy. Had I understood the mechanics behind student loans and had basic financial literacy while I was in school, I have no doubt that my borrowing would have been reduced and the overall handling of my personal finances would have been greatly improved.
Debt Reduction Strategies
Advice for the Aspiring Veterinary Student
Most veterinary school applicants have been committed to their decision to become a veterinarian since childhood, no matter what. If that’s the case, then the earlier you are aware of the true cost of becoming a veterinarian, the better.
- Research the cost of attending school.
- Understand how the student loan process works and estimate the amount of debt that will be incurred.
- Apply to your state school or any school that has a contract with your state. This alone will make a huge difference in DIR.
- If planning to attend as an out of state resident, run the numbers again and make sure that this is a choice you’re willing to make. You should also look into whether you can establish residency while in school.
Advice for the Current Veterinary Student
These students are in it for the long haul, so they have to be strategic about how they handle their finances.
- Look at your financial aid package and make sure you understand everything. You need to know the types of loans, the amounts, the interest, and when you’re expected to start paying it back. Be aware that you will likely accrue interest while in school if you have unsubsidized federal loans.
- Learn how to budget and keep track of your spending. Hopefully, you’re living frugally.
- Borrow the least amount possible rather than maxing out your loans and using the excess for other purposes. If you find that you borrowed more than you need, you have up to 120 days to return that excess.
- Always be on the lookout for scholarships and grants.
- Get a paid job while in school to help defray costs.
- If interested in owning your own practice one day, make sure you take practice management courses and join the VBMA (Veterinary Business Management Association). Owning a practice has consistently been a pathway to increased income.
The VIN Foundation (Veterinary Information Network) has a website that includes a Cost of Education map, as well as other resources that aim to inform and educate prospective veterinary students, current veterinary students, and veterinarians about student debt and loan repayment. Their Student Loan Repayment Simulator has actually been reviewed as a top resource for financial advisors that need help when it comes to assisting their clients with student loan repayment options.
All of the above strategies rely on one thing: EDUCATION! The veterinary curriculum is packed full with all topics related to veterinary medicine, but I think that financial education is crucial as well, especially for a profession that is facing enormous debt as a whole.
The AVMA and AAVMC websites have now included helpful content and resources that aim to increase financial literacy for pre-vets and veterinary students. However, the work is just beginning. It is up to each veterinary program to ensure that they do their part to prepare their students for financial success in the future.
There are so many committed veterinarians out there that are doing the best they can under these circumstances. Despite these difficulties, they still find joy in what they do. They build wonderful relationships with their patients, clients, and the rest of their team. They save lives and provide humane euthanasia to alleviate suffering. They ensure the safety of our food supply, act as ambassadors for animal welfare, engage in important research and scientific discovery that benefit both animal and human health, and work as educators for the public and the next generation of veterinarians.
However, there is further work to be done. The financial stresses of being a veterinarian do not have an easy fix, but one way to exert a level of control is to improve basic financial education. Exploring options to cover the cost of a veterinary education, learning about the loan process, researching different repayment options, and optimizing business practices for practitioners are examples of how increasing financial literacy can be beneficial for the profession. I firmly believe that this knowledge is essential to improving the wellbeing of all current and aspiring veterinarians.
What do you think? What else could be done to ease the debt burden for veterinarians? Do you think the Fix the Debt Summit has done enough to make a dent in the problem? Sound off below!