The elation of crossing the stage, receiving your diploma and being crowned as a new Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (or VMD) soon disappears when that first student loan bill arrives in the mail. Sure, you were vaguely aware of the debt you were racking up the past four or even eight years, but maybe the size of the number didn’t quite hit until you see it there parceled out in neat little payments over the next 10-30 years. As if the last four grueling years weren’t enough, now you’re feeling like you’re being monetarily punished for pursuing the career that you dreamed of. There’s got to be a better way…and maybe there is.
The Reality of Veterinary Student Debt
‘You don’t get into veterinary medicine for the money’ is a common mantra among veterinarians and veterinary staff. And how true it is. We’re all here for the benefit of our patients and clients, the money is just an added bonus, however unbalanced that bonus may be. Take this for example, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the average student debt of new veterinarians graduating in 2018 that took out student loans was $183,014. Couple that with an average starting salary of $82, 425 and you can see that there’s a real disconnect. If we want, as an industry, to continue to support those compassionate individuals seeking that degree or those that are currently in the veterinary trenches something needs to be done.
Enter veterinary loan forgiveness programs
Fortunately, for those veterinarians or veterinary students out there that are finding themselves on the high end of the financial seesaw, there are many loan forgiveness and repayment programs available. There are both national and state-funded programs where qualification will depend on your area of employment.
Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program. The VMLRP was put into place by the National Veterinary Medical Services Act in 2003. Veterinarians in this program agree to practice at least three years in an area deemed by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture as having a shortage of veterinarians. In exchange, qualifying veterinarians can receive $25,000 of loan repayment per year of service. Most of these areas are rural with an emphasis on food animal practice. Those under-served areas are chosen based on nomination, and new areas may appear every year.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. For veterinarians in public health or non-profit services, the PSLF may help relieve remaining debt after 10 years of regular payments. What this means is that veterinarians working for the government or other nonprofit organizations that work for 10 years making regular payments on their government loans will receive complete resolution of the remaining debt. Obviously, this program may be a tough one to qualify for as it’s only for government issued, not private loans, and is only available to veterinarians working in a very specific field.
Army Active Duty Health Professionals Loan Repayment Program. By joining the Army Veterinary Corps you’ll not only treat animals around the world, you may also qualify for $40,000 per year for three years in loan repayment money. The Army Reserve offers a similar repayment program of $50,000 if active military duty isn’t on your horizon. As an added bonus, those veterinarians that pursue diplomacy in a specialty recognized by the AVMA will receive $2,000-$5,000 extra per year.
Federal Faculty Loan Repayment Program. If academia is your future, the FLRP can pay up to $40,000 for a two-year commitment to teaching in a health professions school. Successful applicants come from an economically or environmentally disadvantaged background, meaning a family with a low income or other obstacles that would hinder obtaining such a degree.
State funded programs. Several individual states, such as Idaho, Arizona, and Arkansas, to name a few, have appropriated funds to help with educational debt accrued by veterinarians. Some of these states sponsor the out-of-state tuition for neighboring state schools so that students end up paying in-state prices without being residents of that state. Most of these states then require new veterinarians to return to their home state to practice for a specified number of years in return.
In other states, like Georgia, Kansas, or Kentucky, veterinary students that go into certain specialties that are designated as being in shortage will receive cancelable educational loans. These loans are usually given at a rate of one year of service for one year of study. Again, most of these loans are based around food animal medicine.
Other Loan Repayment Options for Veterinarians
If your debt doesn’t qualify for repayment under any of the above loan repayment or forgiveness programs, don’t give up just yet. There are other options to help repay that massive debt without putting you out on the street. First of all, look into loan consolidation for a lower interest rate. Most federal educational loans come out at around 5-6% interest, while private interest rates can vary anywhere from 7-10%. If you can find a more favorable interest rate by consolidating, do it!
You can also look into income-driven repayment plans. With these types of plans your monthly loan payment is capped at no more than 20% of your discretionary income. This is a great plan for those veterinarians making under the national average as it will help keep your payments proportionally small to your income. After 20-25 years of qualifying payments, the rest of debt is forgiven.
Don’t let student debt scare you away from achieving your dream, and on the flip side, don’t let it keep you from enjoying the career path that you have chosen. The veterinary debt to income ratio has gotten a little off kilter, but taking advantage of some of these loan repayment and forgiveness programs can help you keep your focus where it should be-on your clients and patents-and not on your finances.