Wendy Labrousse entered higher education with a dream. She wanted to save animals' lives. She wanted to watch children's faces flood with relief when they found out their pet would survive. She wanted to spread the same joy she experienced in her own past, when a veterinarian labored throughout the night to save her puppy after it ingested antifreeze. When the weary doctor told her the dog would pull through, her passion ignited and she decided what she was going to do with her life: cultivate this beautiful bond between people and pets. She didn't hesitate to sign on the dotted line to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars for school. Heck, she would have done anything for the privilege.
The bottom line
Then reality set in. After graduation, her monthly loan payment was more than her rent. She had a newborn baby and a husband finishing college, so she was the primary wage earner. She was working 60 hours a week, missing out on time with her new daughter, and still there was nothing to show for it at the end of the month. No retirement savings. No financial security. Despite six years of education, she had a paycheck-to-paycheck existence. "I didn't realize the implications of my debt until I was living with it," she says. ?
Dr. Labrousse's story isn't unusual. Veterinary graduates are struggling with their debt load, especially in their first few years of practice, and some are even leaving the profession (see "Economic emergency" in the April 2008 DVM Newsmagazine). As Dr. Ron DeHaven, executive vice president of the AVMA, notes, "There are some challenges there if we're going to continue to attract the best and the brightest to the profession."
The issues at stake
Some analysts fear that the student debt issue is endangering the very future of veterinary medicine. And when you look at the statistics (see the figures), it's easy to share their nervousness. Other experts believe student debt is not the crisis it's been portrayed as recently. So, depending on who you talk to, either this is the end of veterinary medicine as we know it, or we all need to calm down and look at the big picture.
But even if they disagree, at least these groups are talking about the issues. There are some folks—mostly private practice veterinarians whose loan payoff days are behind them—who don't see student debt as their problem, so they think they can ignore it. This is a dangerous attitude. If you will ever need a young veterinarian to work in your practice or buy your business, this is your issue. A job at your practice, or a stake in its ownership, must make economic sense in a young doctor's life.
That doesn't mean that you, as a practice owner or other type of employer, are responsible for solving the student debt problem on your own. Change needs to come from all stakeholders—students, academic institutions, federal and state governments, and professional organizations, as well as the employers of young veterinarians. However, private practitioners are uniquely positioned to increase earnings. If the profession is to survive and thrive, average salaries must increase, and private practitioners must help drive this change.
The current low "market rate" for veterinarians is heavily influenced by private practices' cost structure and profitability. And many practices are simply not profitable—even if they provide a good living for their owners. If these practices were run more efficiently, not only would the owners make more, but young veterinarians would earn more: Changes in pricing, staff leverage, and business systems would let them be more productive.