Educational debt in the United States now exceeds $1.5 trillion. Many experts believe this level of debt represents a substantial threat to future economic wellbeing. This debt-load is the result of decades of rising tuition costs that have occurred across the spectrum of higher education and professional school, and it has certainly affected academic veterinary medicine.
In fact, we may be experiencing the impact of this societal problem sooner and more acutely in veterinary medicine than in other disciplines because of the salary disparity that exists between veterinary medicine and other health professions. I am one who believes that market forces will eventually correct this imbalance as our profession continues to prove itself such an essential part of a healthy society.
In the meantime, it’s helpful to examine some of the more immediate and more visible parts of the problem. High veterinary college tuition is often viewed as a big reason for the economic challenges we face in veterinary medicine. There are many factors that affect the cost of tuition in our colleges and schools, and there are some misconceptions. Here are three important points to consider:
- Tuition levels are set by university administrators, not by college deans, and the cost of education at American universities has risen much faster than inflation due to increased administrative costs and personnel costs.
- There has been a substantial decrease in public funding for higher education over the past several decades, which has resulted in shifting the cost of education from the public to students.
- Veterinary medical education is more expensive than most other types of education due to the high cost of facilities, such as laboratories and teaching hospitals; the high cost of recruiting and retaining highly trained, board-certified faculty; and the cost of maintaining the high quality of academic programming that is required to meet the rigorous standards of accreditation.
Tuition at veterinary medical colleges is not substantially different from tuition at medical colleges. The average tuition and fees for first-year medical students at public universities in 2017-2018 was $30,958 for residents and $54,631 for non-residents compared to $26,354 for residents and $51,064 for non-residents at public veterinary medical colleges.
Similarly, educational indebtedness for veterinary medical graduates is not substantially different from medical students. The average debt for indebted medical school graduates in 2017 was $190,694 compared to $156,315 for indebted veterinary medical school graduates.4 The big difference, of course, is in salary. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the annual mean wage in 2017 for physicians and surgeons was $214,700 and $101,530 for veterinarians.
Most of the factors affecting the cost of tuition, educational debt and salaries are outside the control of the veterinary medical colleges. However, our deans certainly understand the implications of educational debt and are working hard to contain costs, increase efficiency, and importantly, provide more student scholarship resources.
In July, the AAVMC will present its first AAVMC Student Scholarship Fundraising Excellence Award. During that competition, we were inspired to see how hard so many of our colleges and schools are working to raise philanthropic support for DVM student scholarships. Nearly half of all students now receive some level of financial aid, and at some schools 100% of the veterinary students receive financial aid.4
The AAVMC is pleased to be working closely with the AVMA and the Veterinary Medical Association Executives (VMAE) on the Veterinary Debt Initiative (VDI), which is focused on helping veterinarians thrive in financially sustainable and rewarding careers. And we are more committed than ever to fostering a system of veterinary medical education that provides the best possible support for the students and graduates who are engaged in that endeavor.
For more information about VDI efforts, please visit our website.
Andrew T. Maccabe, DVM, MPH, JD
Chief Executive Officer
Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges
 Ripley, A. Why is college in America so expensive? The Atlantic. Available at: www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/09/why-is-college-so-expensive-in-america/569884/. Accessed Oct 2, 2018.
 AAMC, Medical Student Education: Debt, Costs, and Loan Repayment Fact Card. Available at: https://medsis.urmc.rochester.edu/Global/Documents/financial-lit/aamc-debt-fact-card.pdf. Accessed June 10, 2019.