The high cost of a veterinary degree leave many of us with unpayable debt

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Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal released an article chronicling the increasing struggles of high cost professional degrees such as veterinarians and dentists and the extreme high debt load attached to those careers. The WSJ found 76% of professional programs leave grads with more debt than earnings after 2 years on the job.

Over the last twenty years, average veterinarian debt has tripled. According to the AVMA the class of 2019 had an average of $183,302 in loans, while the mean veterinary salary, is only $99,250 (Bureau of Labor Statistics). And $183,302 is the average debt, some students have loans in excess of $400k.

The biggest issue we are facing as new graduates is the gap between our starting salary and our massive debt burden. While the burden is greatest in areas such as San Francisco, Boston, and New York City, where there is an extremely high cost of living, the struggle to repay loans while living our life is real.

At the same time, tuition rates for veterinary college are at an all-time high. The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges Students reported that the average tuition rate in 2019 was $31,979 for in-state and $52,613 for out-of-state tuition. I am very concerned about the future of our profession and I feel high tuition rates along with the increased ability to secure federal student loans are leading us down a slippery slope.

So, what is our future like as new graduates? Yes, there are programs like loan forgiveness, but that means large monthly payments for the next 20-25 years, the remaining debt is “forgiven” to the individual, while still leaving a large tax burden on the individual. New degrees are also likely to choose their jobs solely based on the pay rate, which means many rural areas where the pay rates are lower will be left in dire need for veterinary services. We are already seeing veterinary deserts across the nation and it can only get worse.

Another issue that we face is that those with these massive debt burdens are less likely to continue their education to become specialists, since specialty training programs have an average salary of $35,807 (AAVMC) per year. Granted, some loan repayments can be deferred while you are pursuing a specialty, but the interest on the loan continues to grow.

With the pressure of our debt burden and the need to make a living, we also often have to choose to postpone life events like buying houses, starting our own business, getting married, or having children, not to mention saving for retirement. How many of us our missing out on living our best life because of our debt? I am saddened by the current state of our profession and that these highly trained professionals are being forced to make these decisions.

Surprisingly, even with student loan debt climbing higher, veterinary school applications keep climbing year after year, with a recent average being about 11,000 applicants for about 4,300 total seats. I agree with the WSJ article when they say that a veterinary career choice is an emotional one, some of us will make bad financial decisions to have the career of our dreams.

What is the solution? A solution to this issue is neither clear nor easy. Concerning debt on a personal level, Tom Seeko, owner and financial advisor with Florida Veterinary Advisors says that “the first step to managing student loan debt is understanding how much you owe and to whom.” From that point, you can learn more about repayment options and make a plan.

But, we need a better solution for our entire profession, for now and for the next generation of veterinary professionals. What if we could pause interest on student loans until after graduation or have states sponsor full tuition for students who agree to return to that state to practice? What about decreasing tuition rates and increasing residency salaries? What about expanding the Health Professions Scholarship program through the military? The Health Professions Scholarship program covers tuition and living expenses but currently offers less than a handful of spots each year.

I am hoping that change happens soon and that this article from WSJ sheds light on a crisis that is happening across our profession and helps bring about real change.