Jessica Holdman, Bismarck Tribune , Published March 25 2013
Beginning veterinarians struggle with loan debt
“I don't hear any crackling,” she told concerned owner Jim Hill.
Bettenhausen, who graduated from Iowa State in 2009, has been a small animal veterinarian at Pinehurst Veterinary Hospital in Bismarck for about three years. She's paying off more than $100,000 in student loans.
It's less debt than most of her classmates, she said. But with the average starting salary for veterinarians between $40,000 and $60,000, “it gets to be tight,” she said.
Bettenhausen, like many recent vet school graduates, looked for jobs in several markets before she was able to land one. Industry leaders say there is room for vets in North Dakota, especially in rural towns, but locating in a sparsely populated area is often difficult for graduates in debt.
Only 45 percent of graduating vets accepted a permanent job offer in 2012, down from 84 percent in 1999, according to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. In 2012, 39 percent had no job offers, up from 19 percent in 1999.
Meanwhile, class sizes are up as much as 20 percent at some of the country's 28 vet schools.
“I looked in Minneapolis. I looked in Fargo,” Bettenhausen said.
Eventually, Bettenhausen joined the same clinic as her father, which was busy enough to take her on. She said Bismarck has been able to support more veterinarians as more people move to town and clients in the western part of the state bring their animals to Bismarck for treatment.
As of August 2012, there were 494 veterinarians licensed to practice in the state, according to the North Dakota Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners. There were 268 with North Dakota addresses.
Most treat both large and small animals. In 2003, there were 442 licensed vets.
Deputy State Veterinarian Beth Carlson said some registered vets may be retired but still licensed to practice. She estimates about 150 to 200 vets are actively practicing in the state, with about 70 vets in south central and western North Dakota.
The state does not have a surplus of vets, Carlson said.
“It's so different here in North Dakota,” said Shelley Lenz, a veterinarian at Killdeer Veterinary Clinic and past president of the Academy of Rural Veterinarians.
Lenz has been looking for a bovine vet to join her practice. She's had 10 to 12 applicants. She can't use a new grad because she has no bovine experience and can't teach them. She said vets in more populated parts of the state have 20 to 30 applications per open position.
In North Dakota, it's more a case of struggling to get vets into rural areas where it's harder for them to have a successful practice. Nancy Kopp, executive secretary for the North Dakota Veterinary Medical Association, said some vets cover an area with a radius of more than 100 miles.
“The thing about North Dakota is we're rural,” Lenz said “You need a certain population to support a veterinarian ... Where I am, I think there are enough veterinarians.”
Many places in the state do not have enough people to support a vet, Lenz said. She also said many people have not been educated on all the services a vet can offer, such as dental care and surgeries.
To cover the gaps in the state, vets would have to start up their own practices, and that's hard to do, Lenz said. She mentors students, and the average debt of the graduates she knows ranges from $130,000 to $140,000. Some owe closer to $300,000.
“You can't pay that back,” Lenz said.
The average starting salary for a vet in Lenz's area is between $60,000 and $65,000, she said. Ten years ago, it ranged from $50,000 to $55,000.
Lenz loves being a vet and can't think of doing anything else. But lately, she has been advising the students she mentors to have a plan for paying off loans before starting school.
There are avenues for help with school debt. One of them is the North Dakota Veterinary Loan Repayment Program.
Gary Garland, director of primary care for the North Dakota Department of Health, said the program helps three vets per year and has been running for six years.
The vet program and other school loan repayment programs were started because some advanced degrees are not offered in North Dakota and students have to go to schools elsewhere. North Dakota needed an incentive to attract more veterinarians back to the state after graduation.
Vets can receive up to $80,000 over a four-year period to help pay off student loans.
“Most come out of school much more in debt than that,” Garland said.
The program usually has 10 to 12 applicants per year and it has given out all three grants every year, Garland said.
Most applicants are recent graduates, but vets who have been out of school awhile also can apply, he said. Vets can be awarded a grant only once.
Garland said the loan repayment amount has been adjusted for other professions, but so far there is no move to raise the amount for vets.
“It's worth looking at down the road,” he said.