The 28 US schools and colleges of veterinary medicine (CVMs) are feeling the painful effects of $104 million worth of state appropriation cuts over the past two years. At the same time, CVMs have managed to stay on course through a combination of belt tightening and tuition increases that only partially make up for the cuts. These findings are the result of a recent economic study by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC), which — along with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) — is examining the economic issues that affect veterinary medical education and veterinary medicine as a whole.
In his recent State of the Union speech and subsequently, President Obama warned colleges that schools can't just "jack up tuition every single year" and simply expect people to pay it, adding that, "If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers every year will go down." Obama is targeting Perkins loans, work-study jobs, and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants.
In response, CVM deans say that they agree with the need to do something about escalating tuition in higher education, which burdens graduates across all professions with often-hefty payments at a time when they are trying to get their careers off the ground. Deans often have only limited, shared decision-making power over tuition rates. For example, in the public sphere, states approve the tuition increases that universities propose and governing boards implement. In simplest terms, students are paying more because the state is paying far less.
The AAVMC is working to publicize and increase loan forgiveness or loan restructuring payment options. Deans point out that they are working hard to reduce the overall cost to educate students through improved campus efficiencies and that, despite state cuts, their tuition increases are less than the national average. For example, according to the College Board, average undergraduate tuition at state colleges rose 8.3 percent this year, and, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, resident medical school tuition rose 7.7 percent, while the average tuition at state CVMs rose 6.6 percent.
According to a recent AAVMC survey, the belt tightening comes at a cost. Of the 28 deans, 71.4 percent reported that state cuts are reducing their schools' ability to hire and maintain faculty; 53.5 percent reported that the cuts are affecting their ability to maintain some academic course offerings for students; and 50 percent reported that cuts are interfering with efforts to provide extension and outreach services.
In 2011, the AAVMC released Roadmap for Veterinary Medical Education in the 21st Century: Responsive, Collaborative, Flexible, a report found at www.aavmc.org/roadmap
that was compiled by the North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium (NAVMEC). As reported in that publication, many CVMs have laid off staff members, reduced the number of faculty members, and eliminated programs.
"What is most worrisome is that CVMs report that they have been unable to fill a significant number of faculty positions," said Dr. Gerhardt Schurig, AAVMC president and dean of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. "Some hopefully temporary cost-cutting measures that can help are to hire part-time or adjunct faculty or slightly increase the student-to-faculty ratio, but we don't want to do that to such a degree that we dilute the quality of the veterinary medical education experience, and we particularly need to manage the size of clinical medical rotations in order to provide a hands-on, individualized educational experience."
Many CVMs are part of schools established through passage of the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Act, which stressed "agriculture and mechanic arts," with most financial support coming from state departments of agriculture. "With time, and the shift of the North American population to urban settings, [direct] financial support to land-grant universities has declined sharply, in stark contrast to what has been provided to schools of human medicine, dentistry, and nursing," says the NAVMEC report. The last major influx of federal funds to veterinary schools came in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Today, agriculture and farm animal care is just one of the multiple roles veterinarians play, and a shift toward companion animal practice, the human-animal bond, and a "one health" approach has occurred. "One health" focuses on the intersection of human, animal, and eco-system health. "Veterinarians are the only professionals educated in a comparative, cross-species approach to diagnostics, epidemiology, and preventive medicine, which is important for a comprehensive, global, 'one health' direction. As this new direction grows, the demand for veterinarians will grow. It will only take a major outbreak of a disease common to humans and animals, bioterrorism attack, or a compromise of the food system infrastructure to dramatically spike an immediate need for additional veterinarians," Schurig said.
From a financial perspective, "The focus of CVMs shifted and many traditional federal revenue streams dried up without any major new funding to support the important work that CVMs do," Schurig said. "Now, on top of that, we're coping with a drastic reduction in state financial support."
"In light of recent trends, CVMs, the AAVMC, and the AVMA need to pursue the NAVMEC report's recommended approaches now more than ever," said Dr. Bennie Osburn, interim executive director of the AAVMC. The report recommends that colleges of veterinary medicine provide a cost-effective, quality education with a "one health" approach where CVMs share educational resources and partner with the AVMA and other stakeholders nationally, internationally, and locally, to develop economically viable approaches to veterinary medical education.
The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) is a nonprofit membership organization working to protect and improve the health and welfare of animals, people, and the environment by advancing academic veterinary medicine. Its members include all 33 veterinary medical colleges in the United States and Canada, nine departments of veterinary science, eight departments of comparative medicine, three veterinary medical education institutions, nine international colleges of veterinary medicine, and five affiliate international colleges of veterinary medicine.