Follow The Tuition Money

Veterinary school tuition is a long term commitment that can affect life past retirement.

Are you, like me, still paying off your student loans despite entering the second decade of your life in this biz? Did you, also like me, refinance your debt for a song, only to realize you might well be retiring long before your last payment is due?

The jury’s still out on what our plight might mean. But there’s one thing I do know, and it has to do with how completely the jealousy consumes me when I consider the college tuition veterinarians paid back in the day.

As recently as 20 years back, I was granted the choice of attending one of two schools offering dramatically different price points. Back then, most in-state veterinary students went to school for well under 10 grand a year. Out-of-state candidates, however, often suffered under a load two to three times greater than their geographically blessed classmates.

I chose the pricey out-of-state option for reasons I can no longer fully fathom, but suffice to say the decision came down to the preference of programs and opportunities. I spent the next four years knowing I’d paid the equivalent of a first-class ticket while my fellow students shelled out coach fares.

Students were then at the cusp of the land-grant tuition sliding scale, the one where some students started paying much more to cover the costs for state schools as they started down that inexorable slide into the public fund abyss. (Though, to be fair, I had the luxury of tying my own noose. That is usually not so true for others.)

As state funding of land-grant institutions continued to wither over the years, the disparity between any two given students in a veterinary classroom is now less pronounced, but the reality persists, especially in the practicing world. Consider …

What are the chances that any associates’ boss paid nearly as much for tuition as they did? That they’re still working off their student loans? That they received loan-repayment and real-life budgeting coursework in school, like so many of us did?

Not so high, right?

It’s enough to make you wonder whether the cultural divide we talk about so often is really not more of a cash chasm.

You’ve heard all the stats, courtesy of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges:

• Today’s average veterinary student can expect to rack up a debt well over $100K.
• Veterinary school tuition over the past four years has risen 31 percent.
• The cost of living for vet students over the same period also has risen 31 percent.
vVeterinary student debt increased 70 percent from 2000 to 2007.

There’s nothing like hearing a ka-ching every time another prof steps to the podium. One current student from a Midwestern school confessed to having panic attacks during what she called her “financial nightmare” course, the one where students are taught to live off Ramen noodles as they pay down their debt. She told me she hadn’t suffered such a run of sleepless nights since her parents got divorced while she was in middle school.

Meanwhile, we Gen X and Gen Y’ers weren’t exactly raised to handle real-life finances responsibly. Our collective credit card debt is an abomination to the generations that precede ours. And, to make matters worse, we’re hell-bent on working to live, not living to work. So when the stuff hits the fan, is it any wonder we feel we might as well be staring down the barrel of a gun?

If you think the pity-pot revelations and the woe-is-me-dom that marks the end of modern veterinary education is a well-deserved kick in the head, you’d be right. But you’d also be wrong to believe that’s where the pain ends.

There’s a palpable resentment against older authority’s rise to power in the golden age of affordable tuition rates, days when veterinarians made small but comfortable salaries in a cozy cottage industry in years before the cultural pet boon of the ’80s and ’90s. So much so that there’s a clear sense of the have-versus-have-nots in this culture crisis. We disregard or minimize it at our profession’s peril.

Case in point: This recession notwithstanding, the real-life cash chasm is huge. According to the AVMA’s 2009 Report on Veterinary Compensation:

• In 2007, the salary of a full-time private practice veterinarian was $115,447.
• Meanwhile, owners of private practices earned an average of $146,374.
• A full 25 percent of private practice owners make more than $187,000.
• One out of 10 makes more than $285,500.

If you factor in the tuition payback, the effective salary of your average associate is significantly lower. How long does it take before the average associate gets to the “average” salary, anyway? And what’s the median? Isn’t that a better measure of prevailing sentiment in the vet sector? Too bad I can’t justify shelling out $169 for a downloadable version so I can run the numbers myself.

The worst news is yet to come: Higher than cost-of-living tuition spikes are in evidence across the spectrum. That may not mean much if you live in Louisiana and still pay under $15,000 a year in tuition, but it’s huge for Californians, Coloradans, New Yorkers and Floridians, for example.

Our states are so hard-hit by the economic downturn that the have and have not conundrum is becoming more geographically stratified even as the tuition/salary gap widens for all.

For me, that hits home in so many ways. Not only does that mean our profession will have to take a hard look at itself and evaluate how it compensates grads, it’ll also have to work harder to find policy solutions at all levels of government. Maybe we’ll even have to devise ways to more inexpensively train students and prepare them technically for immediate profitability.

Whatever the outcome, stressful though it’ll doubtless be for all of us, my role might become more personally fraught than I previously expected:

“Mommy, I’ve finally decided what I want to be when I grow up. Do you think veterinary interventional radiologists make a lot of money?”

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, is a small-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at She earned her veterinary degree in 1995 and her business degree from Wharton in 1997.


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