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Starting from ‘Owe’: Graduates, Practices Look for New Equations in Veterinary Employment
by Michelle Lohmann

Elizabeth Papp estimates that she will graduate from the College of Veterinary Medicine owing $74,000 in government loans. Papp, a third-year student, says she has this much debt because she has been paying for her school since she was 18 years old.

According to Dr. Gerald Pijanowski, associate dean for academic and student affairs, the mean student debt at graduation from the College of Veterinary Medicine is $50,000.
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Students enrolled in Dr. Merle’s class “Your Future in Veterinary Medicine” were asked to illustrate how current societal trends could affect their veterinary practice.

Dr. Michael Meade, a veterinarian with West Central Veterinary Services in Veedersburg, Ind., sympathizes with students facing debts from veterinary school. “There’s no doubt in my mind at all that students are coming out owing way too much money,” Dr. Meade says.

In addition to facing a heavy debt load, Dr. Meade says that there aren’t many students going to mixed practices, so he feels these practices need to try new approaches to appeal to more students.

Dr. Meade, a 1977 Illinois graduate and a graduate of the College’s Executive Veterinary Program in Swine Health, has devised a program in which students can start getting a paycheck before they begin working at the WCVS, and before they graduate.

The program serves two purposes: to help with student debt as well as to help clinics recruit students interested in mixed practice.

Dr. Meade’s program is open to third-year veterinary students interested in working at WCVS. It includes $500 per month for 12 months, a payment that begins June 1 of the student’s senior year. The student would pay back the loan 30 days after initial employment with WCVS, at an interest-free rate of $150 per month over a period of 40 months. Some Illinois students have expressed interest in the program, but currently only a Purdue student is actively participating.

Dr. Pijanowski says that programs similar to Dr. Meade’s have been under way at other colleges for years. At the University of Illinois College of Engineering, an undergraduate can sign a contract to work for General Electric for a fixed amount of time. GE’s program includes a stipend and payment for tuition.

[dog and cat illustration]Dr. Pijanowski believes that there are jobs available with good salaries. A year ago, Papp says, the job market did not look promising, but now she feels confident about the kind of pay that veterinary jobs are offering. Papp has seen advertisements for clinics that offer $70,000 a year.

Dr. Christine Merle, clinical program facilitator in the College’s Continuing Education-Public Service office, says that although veterinary salaries have increased, student debt load has increased much faster.

“Students need to be able to make informed job choice decisions and their debt load has a huge impact on that,” she says. Dr. Merle teaches elective courses dealing with life skills, including budgeting and career planning, to students in the first three years of the veterinary degree program. More than 150 students enrolled in the courses during the fall 2001 semester, when they were first offered.

Student loans can begin in the undergraduate years and pile up as the student continues through school. The combination of living expenses and added cost for out-of-state students can leave a student with a tremendous debt.

According to an article by Dr. Dennis McCurnin in the November 2001 issue of Veterinary Practice News, the two factors that affect the hiring of new veterinarians are the level of compensation and geographic location.

Dr. McCurnin estimates about three jobs available per new graduate, but says only one-third to one-half of those jobs will cover debt load and living expenses.

Finding a location that can meet a student’s demands can also be difficult. Dr. Merle explains that both rural areas and urban areas with a higher cost of living face problems when it comes to attracting new graduates.

[dog illustration]Rural communities may not be able to provide pay that can support debt. “Their location may be less desirable due to a number of factors, including lack of possible job opportunities for spouses,” Dr. Merle says.

Higher income areas have problems as well. Dr. Merle uses Chicago as an example. “The Chicagoland area is hiring usually at higher salaries. However, the cost of living in that area has increased dramatically over the years,” Dr. Merle says. Even with a higher salary, students will have difficulties supporting their debt.

What this implies for practitioners is that they should consider innovative programs, such as Dr. Meade’s loan program, to make their clinic more appealing to job seekers.

Programs such as the one Dr. Meade is implementing are good from the employer’s standpoint, says Dr. Pijanowski, because the employer is able to recruit a new employee and within a year will have developed a relationship with this person.

“Practices that can offer this must be well managed to begin with, and attractive to the student,” Dr. Pijanowski says. “Students won’t go just anywhere. They’re looking around. Practices are going to have to compete for students.”

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