Veterinarian grads struggle to pay off student loans in rural areas

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Sheboygan, Wis., native Nick Mayer graduated from the College of Veterinary Medicine - University of Minnesota with over $360,000 in student debt. He says out of state tuition added to that total tremendously. After graduation he was determined to pay the debt down as soon as possible.

This is the second in a four-part series, “On Call: Vets Under Stress”, that explores the pressures and overwhelming challenges facing those who choose a career in providing care for our animals.

While student loan debt has ballooned across the board for all college students, veterinary students continue to feel the brunt of rising education expenses as they amass large amounts of debt while receiving relatively low pay rates.

Sheboygan, Wis., native Nick Mayer graduated from the College of Veterinary Medicine - University of Minnesota with over $360,000 in student debt. He says out of state tuition added to that total tremendously. After graduation he was determined to pay the debt down as soon as possible.

"Between my wife and I it took a lot of scrimping and saving," Mayer said. "In the seven years it took, I tell people the only thing I did was get married and pay off my debt. Besides that I had little else to show for during that time."

Kansas veterinarian Taylor Crandall graduated vet school in May 2018 with around $100,000 in student debt over four years of studying – and she considers herself lucky because some people she graduated with had loans totaling up to $300,000.

Crandall said she knew she wanted to go to vet school and she planned accordingly. She went to community college on athletic scholarships which decreased her debt to a small amount coming into vet school, and she ended up getting into Kansas State University's College of Veterinary Medicine a year earlier than most other people. That saved her tens of thousands of dollars, since one year's tuition for in-state students is $25,746 as of 2020.

"I knew in the long run that veterinary school was going to be expensive, and I knew if I started out at a four year university, that the cost...was a lot greater," Crandall said. "Then just by pure luck, I was able to get in a year early through the process, which I'm so grateful for because that cut off a whole 'nother year of payments."

It's also nearly impossible to work a part-time job, let alone full-time, while in vet school because of the rigorous curriculum and hours of studying per day, Crandall said. She explained that there's only two options for going to vet school: either come from a background of wealth, or be prepared to take out crushing student loans.

Debt load

According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association, the average debt for a vet student graduating in 2016 was $143,757, including students with zero debt. Not including students without debt, that figure jumps up to $167,534. More than 20% of students leave school with more than $200,000 to pay off.

"I would have likely have had to gone to a bigger city where I could have got a bigger salary," Crandall said. "I'd have to worry about that student loan payment every month, and making sure I could cover that and still live and provide and have a family."

The income situation makes it harder to pay off these debts, especially when first entering the workforce. Real mean income of associate vets has consistently declined since 2010, according to AVMA, with equine vets dipping below $70,000, the lowest figures recorded. Food animal exclusive vets made an average of over $110,000 in 2012, the highest of any category from 2010 to 2016, but 2016 figures show the number dramatically dropping to about $85,000.

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Mixed practice vets overall made the least amount of money, with a peak at just over $90,000 in 2010 and a low point of just over $70,000 in 2016.

"There's just so many more people going to the city areas in order to get the higher salaries, the better work hours," Crandall said. "It's just drying up the rural America veterinarian population. The other veterinarians that are there have to go farther, they have to do more emergency calls."

Crandall said she started with a $65,000 salary in her underserved area of Abilene, Kan. She said that one reason why rural areas are having a hard time attracting vet grads is that bigger population centers simply pay more for them to work there, along with better benefits like health insurance and retirement accounts.

Loan repayment programs

Meg Mueller who practices in the Osseo and Augusta area in northwest Wisconsin says she always wanted to return to the area where she grew up. Because that area of the state is considered an underserved area, she was able to qualify for a federal Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program. The VMLRP will pay up to $25,000 each year towards qualified educational loans of eligible veterinarians who agree to serve in a NIFA-designated veterinarian shortage situation for a period of three years.

For this program, Wisconsin has identified eight counties as having shortage situations: Barron, Calumet, Eau Claire, Fond du Lac, Jackson, Kewaunee, Trempealeau and Waupaca counties.

Persuading young vet school graduates to move to rural areas can be a tough sell, especially if they also need to find work for a spouse.

"A lot of students coming out of school would like to practice in these rural areas, but with their debt load, some smaller practices start on the lower end salary-wise," Mueller said. But if you have the career of a significant other to consider, many may opt out of those rural practices."

Rachel DeSotel, of Kalona, Iowa, graduated from veterinary school at Kansas State University in 2014 with about $250,000 in debt.

She's applied three times for the federal loan repayment program and has been turned down every time, despite working in rural Washington County, which qualifies because it is adjacent to Jefferson County.

"Only so many are going to get it from the federal level," she said. "There are a lot of counties and a lot of vets who need assistance, all vying for just a few awards."

Crandall said she came from a rural area herself and knew she wanted to work in a mixed animal practice from the start. But she was also incentivized to start working in a rural area because she's part of the Veterinary Training Program for Rural Kansas, which offers five students annually the chance to have up to $80,000 forgiven in student loans if they agree to practice in a shortage-designated area of Kansas for at least five years after graduation. That would eliminate around 80% of Crandall's debt.

"Every state should have a program like this, I think it's phenomenal. It not only helps  ... with the student loan debt, but it's also helping farmers, it's helping cattle ranchers, it's helping all of those people that already work and do so much to keep our economy (and) the agriculture going," Crandall said. "The beef market, the pork market, everything like that. They need us. We can't just leave them high and dry."

If she wasn't a part of the Kansas program, Crandall said she probably would have been forced to find a job in a larger city in order to afford monthly student loan debt repayments.

Cassandra Gewiss, a 2012 University of Illinois vet grad who practices at Waupun Veterinary Service since 2014, says student debt is one of the biggest issues facing the vet industry right now. She said the high debt-to-income ratio for most vets limits your post-graduation options, especially buying a house or starting a family.

Living Frugally

Cassandra Gewiss, a 2012 University of Illinois vet grad who  has practiced at Waupun Veterinary Service in Waupun, Wisconsin since 2014, said student debt is one of the biggest issues facing the vet industry right now. She said the high debt-to-income ratio for most vets limits your post-graduation options, especially buying a house or starting a family. Gewiss said she learned to live frugally.

"My husband and I live a more frugal lifestyle," Gewiss said. "It really slows down what you can do when you get out of school and a lot of your paycheck is going to debt. It also slows down opportunities ... that require really big capital investments that you can't save for, and you might not have the ability to be lended to."

It's difficult to bring in income to a rural clinic when farmers are also teaching themselves to do some parts of a vet's job, Gewiss said. With emergency calls, a vet could be hours away from the farm, forcing farmers to take things into their own hands if they're able to. When that happens, a vet will lose potential income, Gewiss said.

Gewiss explained that work-life balance is also extremely important to vets, but it may only be maintained through a trade-off. The mother of two children aged five and three, Gewiss said she recently began taking three-day weekends as a way to manage her time better, but she also received a pay cut. However, it's worth it to her.

"I don't work Thursdays (anymore), so for me, I lost compensation ... but I have a greater work-life balance," Gewiss said. "Compensation matters, don't get me wrong – but work-life balance is incredibly important to me right now. Seven years ago, I would have been happy being a workaholic, but now, it's not an option."

Rural life also includes benefits like lower cost of living. Gewiss said she preferred to stay in Waupun rather than Madison because housing costs much less there. She said she also received benefits from some US Department of Agriculture programs, like the VMLRP, which helped her pay off student debt faster. Gewiss did say the program still has some issues, though.

"The program is very helpful to students. It's still in the earlier stages, I think they still got some things that they need to iron out ... in the program. I think it's a great start," Gewiss said. "It could be better if school just wasn't so expensive in the first place because that only helps a small fraction of people."

Wisconsin efforts

In April, Wisconsin Congressman Ron Kind introduced the bipartisan Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act. The measure will help address Wisconsin's veterinarian shortage by lifting overly burdensome taxes on programs that encourage veterinarians to practice in rural communities.

Supporters of the effort say the VMLRP is subject to a burdensome 37 percent federal withholding tax, which limits the number of awards for qualifying veterinarians. The Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act will provide an exemption from the federal income withholding tax for veterinarians, bringing more veterinarians to rural communities across the country.

Rep. Ron Kind

"Veterinarians are a critical part of Wisconsin's agricultural and rural economy, yet many communities are facing a shortage of animal care professionals," said Rep. Kind. "This bill will help increase opportunities for veterinarians to practice in communities in need across Wisconsin, ensuring a healthy and safe food supply chain."

Keeping vets in rural areas

Dan Grooms, dean of veterinary medicine at Iowa State University, said student debt is an important issue for Iowa students, especially when it comes to finding a job that will allow them to pay off debt affordably. Those with high debt tend to go to the cities to manage their debt, while those with less debt can more easily make the decision to move to a rural area, factoring into rural shortages.

Last summer, Grooms said he had a team of vet students working on the question of retention – how to keep vets in rural areas – and a survey revealed that salary is a top concern for most vet students. Work-life balance and accessibility to mentorship were other concerns.

One goal for Iowa State is to double the amount of scholarship awards given to vet students by next year, Grooms said. He said the average number now is $1 million in scholarships. But since not everyone gets a scholarship, Grooms said students are encouraged to live frugally and work any jobs they can outside of school.

According to the AVMA, there is a shortage of mixed animal and farm animal veterinarians across the country due to the unpredictable hours and the need to live in rural areas. Many students opt to practice in more urban areas due to higher salaries which allow them to pay down student debt more quickly.

"We also encourage our students to think about ways that they personally can reduce their debt. So it could be summer jobs," Grooms said. "Then after graduation, we're advocating for things that can help reduce that debt, especially for those folks that do want to go into rural practice or rural areas. There's no one silver bullet, there's lots of things that we can do to try to help reduce that debt."

Grooms said he also advocates for everyone to apply to loan forgiveness programs, such as the one just passed in the state in 2020, which he said should be funded by the start of the 2021 fall semester. Similar to the Kansas program, vet grads have to work in an underserved area for at least five years in order to get up to $60,000 forgiven. It also includes a community aspect.

"There is an opportunity for communities to invest in this program and leverage the dollar. They can put money into this program and really enhance the amount that could be there to attract a veterinarian," Grooms said. "So there's the opportunity for communities to partner in this loan repayment program if they see that as being important for their community."

Colleen Kottke of the Wisconsin State Farmer contributed to this report.