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Mixed News on Student Debt

Wednesday, February 12, 2020  
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The American Veterinary Medical Association’s annual economic survey of new veterinary school graduates offers mixed information about the state of veterinary debt. More students than ever are graduating without any veterinary debt, but we also continue to see more entering the profession with upwards of $400,000 in student loans.

Here are a few of the important points in the debt picture for the 2019 graduating classes from all U.S. veterinary colleges accredited by the AVMA Council on Education:

  • Average debt of veterinary graduates continues to hover around $150,000, but individual debt varies greatly. Some graduates report no student debt, while others carry debt loads over $400,000. 18.2% of graduates reported $0 debt, the highest percentage since at least 2001. This number has been trending upward since 2013, when it hit a low of 10.0%.
  • The portion of students graduating with debt below $100,000 increased for the first time since at least 2001 – rising from 30.4% (2018) to 32.1% (2019). In 2001, 92.1% of the graduating class reported debt under $100,000.
  • 10.7% of 2019 graduates reported debt over $300,000. Prior to 2013, fewer than 1% of graduates reported this much debt. 
  • The percentage of graduates reporting debt over $400,000 reached 0.8% in 2019, more than double the level of 2017 (0.3%). Prior to 2014, no one reported debt levels above $400,000.

What does all of this mean? The landscape of veterinary medicine is changing rapidly as a new generation of veterinarian begins to emerge and take hold. This generational shift brings both new opportunities and challenges. The burgeoning educational debt load in the veterinary profession mirrors the national problem facing higher education in the United States.

Similarly, the pattern of a dwindling middle class across the country seems to match the trend in distribution of student debt in our profession. While an increasing share of new veterinarians are graduating without any student debt, a rising share are graduating with excessive and unsustainable debt, in excess of $300,000. 

What can be done? Fortunately, more research is underway to understand factors associated with the groups at both ends of the veterinary debt spectrum – graduates with considerably high and low debt levels. Among the topics being examined are these:

  • Demographics of both groups – to help us better understand and develop interventions to support debt management and repayment.
  • Unique challenges facing new veterinarians with very high student debt – to determine if an identifiable group is more likely to fall into this category and could be helped proactively with financial counselling or need-based scholarships.
  • Conditions or factors that allow more students to graduate without debt, even though veterinary school tuition continues to rise steadily – to identify tactics that could be replicated more broadly.
  • How the simultaneous increase in new veterinarians with high debt levels and those with none will impact the profession, and what steps we need to take to address these trends.

Next steps for the profession. This situation presents a great opportunity for learning and conversation. The growing population of students graduating with zero debt is an ideal sample to study in order to uncover trends, strategies and tactics being used by both students and college administrators. Although starting salaries for graduates of different veterinary colleges aren’t significantly different, student debt levels vary widely across the colleges. There is much we can learn from schools that are managing to produce graduates with low debt levels over time, and the AVMA is committed to uncovering tactics that work. Our upcoming economic research aims to help students and the profession manage debt levels and thrive.

The AVMA's 2019 Economic State of the Veterinary Profession report provides more data and analysis related to student debt. The report is available to all AVMA members as a free benefit of membership in the AVMA.