The Debt Crisis: Has a Veterinary Degree Become a Bad Investment? Part 2 of 2, Finding Answers
Last week we discussed the student loan debt crisis in veterinary medicine. This week we’ll be discussing potential answers to the crisis and how Associated Veterinary Partners is working to be a part of the solution.
Most important in solving this issue: We need to introduce one or more negative feedback loops into the cost of veterinary education. As is the case with biological systems, financial systems need negative feedback mechanisms to achieve healthy balance. The external negative feedback loops that normally are supposed to be there for debt (lenders refusing to loan excessive debt to income ratios) are currently not there for student loan debt and a small profession like veterinary medicine cannot hope to make change on that point. As we discussed last week, with plentiful applicants who have access to nearly unlimited amounts of debt, and no other meaningful external pressure to control costs, veterinary medical programs have a carte blanche to charge whatever they want for a degree. That means that we need to explore internal methods of controlling the cost of veterinary education to make up for the fact that normal lender-side cost control is absent:
1) Make a hard push for states to reintroduce state funding for veterinary medical programs. Veterinarians provide significant societal, economic, and public health benefits that all Americans benefit from. Providing reasonable levels of subsidy for veterinary education results in clear return on investment for taxpayers. Never has that been more apparent than as we look at the multi-trillion-dollar economic impact and significant loss of lives as the result of a global pandemic of zoonotic origin. Engaging the public directly in order to generate grassroots support for reintroducing veterinary medical educational subsidy as a means to control the rising cost of care (especially in agricultural communities that have the most to lose from the rising rural veterinary healthcare access crisis) could be a powerful addition to existing efforts to lobby lawmakers directly.
2) Add restrictions on administrative expenses as a proportion of tuition at veterinary medical programs. Put simply: Programs need to be accountable for their use of tuition and ensure that most of it is spent directly on providing education rather than paying for administrative bloat. The cost of veterinary education has vastly outpaced inflation over the last two decades without a clear increase in clinical competency of graduates with which to justify rising cost, so increases in non-educational staff and expense should be curtailed.
3) Tie accreditation status to debt-to-income ratio for graduates. Programs that are unwilling or unable to control costs and ensure their graduates are entering into financially viable careers should face probation or loss of accreditation.
Even if we manage to get the rising cost of education under control, we still need to worry about the other half of debt-to-income ratios: Income. As discussed before:
1) Veterinary practice owners on average make more money than associate veterinarians.
2) Ownership is one of the few viable methods for heavily indebted veterinarians to effectively pay off their student loan debt that doesn't rely on the hope that loan forgiveness programs will be honored in 20-25 years.
3) Veterinarian ownership is declining and non-veterinarian ownership by private equity and other institutional investors is rising.
This is where Associated Veterinary Partners is working to be a part of the solution. We are a veterinarian-founded, veterinarian-operated group that is not private equity backed. At nearly all our practices we have at least one veterinarian equity partner who has equal financial terms co-ownership with AVP in their practice. Our partnerships are inherently flexible, meaning that additional veterinarian partners can be included in or added to our partnerships. This facilitates smooth transitions of medical leadership as senior veterinarians retire, alignment of incentives, and greater earning potential for our clinician partners compared to associate employment.
For any veterinarians who are interested in learning more about AVP and our partnerships, regardless of whether you are an owner of a practice today or are curious about potentially having ownership in a practice in the future, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1) 2020 AVMA Report on the Economic State of the Veterinary Profession