The Debt Difference
Graduation comes with a diploma and, for many veterinarians, a six-figure student loan bill. Yet, a growing number owe nothing.
Kenneth Pierce sat down in 2001 to think about the loans he would need to complete his veterinary education. Already responsible for $60,000 in undergraduate debt, he was shocked by what he saw. “How am I ever going to pay this?” he asked his cousin, an Atlanta emergency room physician. “Think of it like a mortgage,” the cousin responded. “You make a house payment every month. Just pay the minimum and do what you can until you make more money and can pay more.”
Fortunately for Dr. Pierce — and the many animals he has helped since as a practice owner and board-certified ophthalmologist — he took his cousin’s advice. He graduated from Louisiana State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine in 2005 after borrowing an additional $130,000.
Dr. Pierce, DVM, MS, DACVO, deferred his loans while completing six years of internships and an ophthalmology residency, earning $25,000 to $31,000 annually. Then, in 2011, he accepted an associate professor position at his alma mater, making about $100,000 a year and suddenly responsible for a monthly loan payment of $1,400.
Today, Dr. Pierce owns Veterinary Vision Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, and still owes about $75,000. He certainly isn’t alone.
By the Numbers
According to the 2020 Economic State of the Veterinary Profession, a report published by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the average debt of the 2019 graduating class was $149,877. Additionally, 33% of the graduates reported accruing from $200,000 to $400,000 in debt, while 1% were on the hook for more than $400,000.
The numbers are shocking, but the report highlighted other numbers that also grabbed attention: Nearly 1 in 5 of the 2019 graduates — 18.2% — indicated that they finished veterinary school debt-free, up from 17.3% in 2018. Remove those students from the equation and the average debt level for the Class of 2019 jumped by more than $33,000, to $183,302. Why the disparity?
“It mirrors exactly what we’re seeing in the economics of our country, which is a narrowing of the middle class,” said Matt Salois, Ph.D., chief economist and director of the AVMA’s Veterinary Economics Division. “The overall share of what we would define as the middle class has been shrinking over time with this growing divide of the haves and the have-nots.
“If you look at the trending over time, we are reaching probably the highest levels of income inequality in our country since the 1920s,” he said. “So, what we’re seeing in veterinary medicine isn’t shocking. It’s no different than what’s happening in our overall economy, but it’s definitely something we need to be concerned about and discussing.”
According to the 2021 annual data report from the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, about 60% of first-year DVM students reported no undergraduate debt. Of those with little or no undergraduate debt, nearly 50% counted on the financial support of their families.
“What we are increasingly seeing in our applicant data is that the percentage of applicants who intend to rely on family support rather than loans has been on the rise,” said Lisa Greenhill, MPA, EdD, the AAVMC’s senior director for institutional research and diversity. “Additionally, the [rising] percentage of DVM students who are completing the program with no debt suggests that the pool of students from more modest means is on the decline.”
A House Divided
Jordan Kraft, DVM, and Kathryn Kraft, DVM, started dating during veterinary school at Texas A&M University. When they graduated — Jordan in 2012 and Kathryn a year later — Jordan had accumulated $130,000 in student debt and Kathryn none. The Krafts each paid in-state tuition, and both had parents who set up 529 college savings accounts.
“I was planning on using [the 529] to pay for my undergrad, but then I secured a full-ride scholarship,” Kathryn said. “And then I was able to complete my undergraduate degree in three years, so I reached out to the associations that held my scholarships and asked if they would let me use that fourth year of scholarship money toward my first year of vet school.”
Some agreed, which meant most of her first-year costs were covered. Then, between her 529 account and newly awarded scholarships, her entire education was paid for.
The Krafts paid off Jordan’s $130,000 debt within six years.
“The first three years he was out of school, we didn’t pay much on his loans because I was still in school, and then during my internship, I wasn’t making any extra money,” Kathryn said. “So, we really paid them off in those next three years.”
While paying down the loans, the Krafts rented a family home after Kathryn’s grandparents died, keeping that cost low.
“And then we tried to have minimal expenses beyond that,” Kathryn said. “We didn’t have kids. We drove our old beat-up cars — I had my truck since I was 15, and my husband had his car since he was 18. So, we didn’t have car payments or anything like that.”
The couple refinanced Jordan’s loans to a 30-year term, lowering the monthly payment to $800. They then paid as much as possible after Kathryn began work as a veterinarian. Today, she is the regional chief medical officer at Illinois-based Family Vet Group.
“In the three years that we were actively trying to pay off the loans, our payments averaged around $4,000 a month,” Kathryn said. “Any extra money we had was put toward the loans.”
In addition to low housing costs and no car payments, the Krafts cut back in other areas. Traveling and dining out took a back seat to saving money, but they didn’t skip the things they loved.
“We did a lot of road trips and traveling with the cooler in the car, and we slept in the car while we were on vacation,” Kathryn recalled. “We would still go out and do things, but we really worked to minimize the costs.”
When the Krafts paid off Jordan’s loans, they bought two new cars.
“We basically replaced loan payments with car payments,” Kathryn said.
Waiting for Wheels
Dr. Pierce was 24 and in veterinary school when he got his first car.
“Growing up without much income, I didn’t have a means of transportation to and from school,” he said. “I had to catch rides with classmates that lived relatively close to me. I would have to adapt my schedule because of that. Sometimes I would stay after class and study because I needed to wait for my ride.”
It wasn’t until the second semester of Dr. Pierce’s third year at Louisiana State — right before he started clinical rotations — that he could finance a car.
Dr. Pierce chose LSU because it was less expensive than Tuskegee University, where he earned his undergraduate degree.
“At LSU, I was the only African American in the school,” Dr. Pierce recalled. “The last Black graduate they had prior to me was in 1999. I was alone on the island.”
The AVMA’s Dr. Salois said racial differences exist when it comes to average debt levels.
“Historically, women have had higher debt than men, but that gap is becoming much smaller over time,” he said. “Now, Black graduates have almost twice the debt levels of white graduates. It’s an uncomfortable reality, but as we have a renewed sense of addressing diversity, equity and inclusion in our profession, it also needs to be a topic that’s front and center.”
According to Dr. Greenhill, students of color are more likely than their white counterparts to be first-generation college attendees and to come from low-income families. As applicants, they are more likely to pursue student loans than receive family financial support.
“We have a huge conflict in our desire to increase racial diversity, with a large part of that demographic being priced out of higher education,” Dr. Greenhill said.
A Passion for Animals
Dr. Pierce didn’t have a dog or cat as a child, but he always loved animals. So when his cousin sat him down during junior year of high school and told him he needed a life game plan, veterinary medicine came up.
“At that time, there was only one African American veterinarian in the city of New Orleans, and that was George Robinson, who was also an LSU graduate,” Dr. Pierce said. “I remember going to his practice. We sat down in the lounge and talked about why I was interested in veterinary medicine.
“I told him I wanted to be a snake veterinarian, but I didn’t even know what that was even called. He told me I would never make a living doing that but that he’d give me a chance to get my start in the profession.”
The future veterinarian took a job as a kennel assistant in Dr. Robinson’s practice and worked his way up to veterinary assistant and then lead veterinary assistant.
Dr. Robinson has since moved on to become the founder and vice chairman of Heartland Veterinary Partners. The two men enjoy a lasting friendship.
“As a kid with holes in my shoes and welfare cash at the grocery store, I was just starting to learn about how limited we were financially,” Dr. Pierce said. “If I could go back and see that kid now, I’d tell him, ‘Be focused and don’t worry. You’ll make it. Just keep making goals for yourself. Even if you don’t think you can achieve it, aim for it. You’ll be surprised at what you can become.’”
Sarah Rumple is an award-winning veterinary writer living in Denver, Colorado. The owner of Rumpus Writing and Editing, Sarah hopes to one day be able to pay off her student debt. Contact her at rumpuswriting.com.
WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
The U.S. veterinary industry can’t shape the economy, but it can support economically disadvantaged people and make a veterinary education more affordable, said Matt Salois, Ph.D., the American Veterinary Medical Association’s chief economist.
He advises prospective students to fully understand the cost of a veterinary education and be keenly aware of the economic opportunities that follow.
Grant programs and the pool of scholarship money need to grow, Dr. Salois said. Universities, government institutions, nonprofit groups and endowments can all play a role in reducing student debt levels.
“Veterinarians play such a critical role in our country that transcends well beyond companion animal care,” Dr. Salois said. “When you look at public safety, public health, zoonotic diseases, as well as the safety of our food and farm supply, we need veterinarians. There is
a social component to this that warrants significant investment from a scholarship and grant perspective to ensure we’re graduating the right amount of talented veterinarians that can contribute thoughtfully to our society in those areas.”