The Real Cost of Vet School Debt
The news that veterinarians are increasingly caught in the squeeze of higher-education debt and lower earning potential was certainly not news to those of us in the profession. We’ve been feeling the strain for years now, so much so that a couple years ago I walked around the North American Veterinary Conference and asked my colleagues, “Would you want your kids to be veterinarians?”
The answer was mostly, “No.”
That’s not because we don’t like what we do or aren’t proud of what we do — on the contrary, we know we’re usually well-respected for what we do. But we also know that the middle-class life that once seemed a given in our profession is not guaranteed anymore — and sometimes it’s not even possible. Buying homes, starting families and, especially, moving into the ranks of those who own a veterinary hospital are all things that frequently must be put off to pay back student loans. We tighten our belts, put another hundred thousand miles on the car and hope for a better future.
Should You Care?
A better future? We’re not holding our breath. A recent, much-discussed article in The New York Times laid out the challenges facing young veterinarians. Few vets disagreed with the obvious conclusions: The veterinary profession is in trouble.
So if you’re not currently a veterinarian, not hoping to become a veterinarian or not related to anyone in either category, should you care about these issues? Yes, you should. And not just because of the obvious problems for us all of having a generation of young people either skip veterinary school or graduate with crushing debt. When the best and brightest decide they can’t afford to be veterinarians, it’s more than our pets' health that will suffer in the long run — it's our own as well.
But let’s start with our pets’ health.
Every profession is pushed forward by the fresh ideas of new generations, and few professions have benefited more in this way than mine has in recent decades. Veterinary schools and colleges are fewer in number than medical schools, and the competition to get into training for a veterinary medical degree is very difficult. Veterinary school classes are full of some of the smartest and certainly most dedicated students anywhere.
Dedication to a Dream
It’s more than brains or hard work that got them there: Veterinary medicine is for many of us the culmination of a lifelong dream. I cannot tell you how many famous successful people I meet who, when they find out I’m a veterinarian, tell me that was what they wanted to be. These people are actors, models, politicians and other successful — and often rich — celebrities. But their first career choice? Veterinary medicine. I’ve had everyone from Victoria’s Secret models to astronauts tell me so.
Heck, I’ve even had a physician or two say it, admitting that medical school was their No. 2 choice. I hope they never tell their patients that human medicine was their plan B, but I will say that is something few veterinarians will tell you. First and foremost, veterinary medicine was their goal. Always.
These goal-minded young veterinarians have advanced the profession more in the past 50 years than in the 250 that came before. Nearly every advance in human medicine is now available in veterinary medicine, and what veterinarians discover often ends up pushing human medicine forward as well. And while some may lament the end of the good ol’days of veterinary medicine, I never do, nor should any pet lover who wants a companion cared for by the best in the best way possible.
When the best students start choosing their plan Bs because they can't afford to be veterinarians, what they would have brought to veterinary medicine will be missed by all.
The Veterinary Contribution to Human Health
As I’ve written before, most veterinarians treat pets. But there are also veterinarians who are a critical part of keeping people healthy. These veterinarians work in public health, and also in the food production and distribution network. Food-animal veterinarians are experts not only in animal care but in sanitation, epidemiology, microbiology, bioterrorism and more. As the global food system has expanded, their work has become more important than ever.
Public health veterinarians are also essential to human health, working within the larger public health system to protect the public from emerging diseases arising from animals, whether that be pets, livestock or wildlife. Finally, there are also veterinarians in medical research, looking for answers to health challenges that threaten people and pets alike.
The pet industry contributes more than $50 billion every year to the American economy, and while veterinary care accounts for just $14 billion of that amount, veterinarians play a part in other aspects of that industry, including the development of foods and medicine. Add to it the contributions of veterinary professionals who work in human health and suddenly it becomes clear. The troubles of the veterinary profession are important to us all, even if we don’t have pets.
We need some answers to keep those contributions coming, for the good of us all.