MSU seeks to ease debt toll on veterinary students

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

When Hailee Cotter was growing up, she loved animals so much she sometimes played more with friends’ dogs than her friends.

Dr. Hailee Cotter and her colleagues face a loan debt-starting salary disparity higher than other health professionals.

Many joked Cotter would one day become a veterinarian, which she did, graduating last spring from Michigan State University, the state’s only veterinary school, and landing a job soon after at an animal hospital near Lansing.

But as she begins her career, Cotter is already saddled with $215,000 in student loans.

“To pay that, it’s hard to live,” the 25-year-old said.

That’s why Cotter is involved in a committee working on an MSU effort to reinvent its College of Veterinary Medicine curriculum, the first program in the nation to reimagine veterinary education and its costs.

The aim of the reinvention is to address the high costs for student veterinarians since their debt to starting salary disparity is greatest when compared to other health professionals.

Additionally, MSU is also attempting to weave wellness into the new curriculum since recent studies have shown the stress of the profession has led to mental health struggles and high rates of depression.

For nonresident students, four years of tuition at MSU’s vet school is $222,216, according to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. At the low end is North Carolina State University at $92,290.

Tuition for instate MSU vet students is $29,804 and an average student takes 4.5 years of undergraduate education, along with four years of veterinary medicine before graduating. That means the average loan debt for an in-state vet student is $159,848, MSU spokeswoman Kim Ward said.

Laura Nelson works with students Sabrina Rupani and Becca Raffel at Michigan State, which is trying to reduce veterinary tuition costs.

Meanwhile, starting salaries for veterinarians are in the range of $70,000 annually. They have slowly risen but remain the highest income-to-student debt ratios when compared with other health professionals, according to a 2013 study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Julie Funk, associate dean of academic programs and student affairs at MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, called the veterinary medicine profession and education “at a critical juncture.”

“Student debt rates are creating a tremendous burden for students, so we have to reinvent how we educate our students to ensure their success and well-being,” Funk said. “We are trying to become more cost efficient, and find ways to reduce tuition. What we are pursuing is unique.”

Among the areas MSU’s vet school is examining for curriculum change: Making it more “learner centered,” focusing on a competency-based model to allow for more flexible time for students to move on from subjects they already know and pushing hands-on learning sooner in the curriculum, Funk said.

While officials have engaged veterinarians inside and outside the university to examine the curriculum, the process is still underway and not expected to be developed until spring 2017 and implemented in fall 2018.

“We hope to change the way everyone approaches veterinary education,” Funk said.

MSU has not yet set any specific tuition targets but does “strive for an average veterinary educational debt to first year income ratio of 1.4 to 1,” according to Funk.

MSU’s curriculum reinvention also comes as its out-of-state tuition is among the highest of the nation’s 30 veterinary schools.

“It demonstrates some real leadership for the administration of the (veterinary) college to say we recognize the debt-to-income ratio is very high, and that means we’re going to focus on that as we review our curriculum,” said Andrew T. Maccabbe, CEO of the Association of American Veterinary Colleges.

“If Michigan State is able to demonstrate better ways to maintain high quality, world-class education and reduce student debt, we would hope to share that with all of our member institutions around the world, since it’s an issue that affects the entire profession.”

While the number of applicants at MSU has remained steady at less than a 1,000 a year for its class of roughly 115, Funk said there is a slight dip nationally.

MSU is hoping to attract more students outside Michigan especially as competition increases with two new veterinary education programs to open at the University of Arizona and Texas Tech University.

“Veterinary student debt is a serious issue facing the profession, one that can cause not only an economic burden for recent or soon-to-be graduates, but also increased stress and a decreased sense of professional well-being,” said Michael San Filippo, spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association.

“We hate to think of someone deciding not to pursue their dreams of becoming a veterinarian because they are daunted by the debt they may accumulate.”

Though Cotter’s starting salary is $70,000 annually, she qualifies for a program that bases her student loan payments on her income and will forgive the remainder of her loan after 20 years.

Even so, Cotter said not everyone qualifies for such a program and she will be paying until she is at least 45.

“I wish the university had made this (curriculum reinvention) a bigger priority before,” Cotter said. “It is an issue that people are graduating and their debt load is three times their salary.”

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com