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Veterinary School is Not a Tropical Vacation

Written by Dr. Greg Magnusson and Kristen Thomas, DVM Class of 2020


Here at Leo’s Pet Care, we REALLY enjoy mentoring young pre-veterinary students through their careers. This post is about helping young veterinary hopefuls make the smartest choice of which college to attend.

We’ve both been there. I went through it not to many years ago, and Kristen is going through it now, so this discussion is fresh on our minds, and we want you to know the thought process we were both going through so that maybe, our experience can help you make the best decision for yourself.

A few years of college under your belt, maybe even a degree or two achieved, and now you’re considering applying to veterinary school!

What a great choice, to join this noble veterinary profession…

But which veterinary school should you go to…?

Let’s look at where you might have been coming from, where you might be going, and see if we can’t help you avoid a few tragic pitfalls along the way.

The veterinary student perspective, by Kristen Thomas

“At this stage of the game, there is so much information flying around at you. There are so many schools to choose from, one of them being your in-state school. What do you know about these schools? Nada. But, you figure, there has to be a reason you have that many options, right? Not only could you choose to go to veterinary school in any one of 30 different states, you could totally go to vet school in England if you wanted to. Or Scotland, or Australia, or Canada, or France, Ireland, Mexico, even the West Indies in the Caribbean. Each of those is totally an option being offered to you, and not just to you, plenty of students choose to leave their state and go out-of-state or out of the country to get their veterinary education. If it’s such a terrible idea to go out-of-state, why are so many people doing just that? So at this point, any school is on the table, and you’re trying to figure out which one is the best choice for you.

But again, what do you know about each of these schools? Eh, not much. You do know something about your in-state school… that it’s the same boring state you’ve been living in for whoever knows how many years and it has lost its charm. So you try to do your research on what one school has to offer over another. And there are so many variables to look at. Tuition and location are just two variables in a sea of variables. The big concern on your radar initially is not cost. Your concern is getting in. You are at least a year, an application, and an intensive interview process away from actually having to take that big scary number seriously.

And so you are overwhelmed with all of the information, all of the options, and some more pressing concerns. Concerns that are not immediate (tuition) are put aside to look at another day. (Tuition is all big numbers. This school is 40k a year, that one 50k a year…there’s only one school that’s 19k a year. You’re in a sea of numbers and they’re all intimidating so we’ll just turn that warning bell off for now…)

Besides, tuition is the first thing your parents start talking about. Of course they know that in-state is cheapest and isn’t it convenient you’d be so close to home??? Parents love that.

But you put that aside and you focus on the biggest, scariest thing first: getting in. Because you’ve got to get in first, for cost to be an issue. At this stage, you feel like acceptance rates are the scariest numbers to contend with.

So initially, there are several motivating factors encouraging you to apply to multiple schools: 1) cost isn’t really a tangible thing right now, because all the numbers are so much larger than anything you have had to wrap your brain around before, so let’s just not think about that at all 2) in-state has little to no charm, you know all about your state by now and 3) options, options, options… options are great, who doesn’t like options?! Because cost isn’t tangible right now, you are free to humor just how wonderful life would be at x, y, and z state. Or even out of the country! Fun!!!

The other thing that popped into my brain when considering schools was the community. Maybe this concerns speaks mostly to me, but maybe not so much for your animal-loving science nerd. For most of my life, I’ve been that quirky kid who doesn’t fit in with the mainstream. At most places, I’ve found the kids who are on their own little Island of Misfit Toys. At this point in my life, I’ve learned to adapt and forge my own path. But, wouldn’t it be nice to go to the school that has your people in it? Having so many options with schools, allows you to humor the thought that maybe there’s a vet school out there with your people in it….

I got my research into schools from other students, which told me a lot about the schools and their strengths and their community. Which confirms that I’m on the same level as other students because their focus was on what the school and its community have to offer.

Everyone in my shoes (pre-vet and vet students) sees the price tag as totally acceptable. Point in case, there are an average of 200 people that interview out-of-state at each school. There is no shortage of people willing to pay the out-of-state price tag!

What really made me start taking tuition seriously is when Dr. Ted Mashima, AVMA Associate Executive Director for Academic and Research Affairs and board-certified zoo-vet, someone who has made it his career to counsel veterinarians and help vet students develop their careers, flat out told me to go in-state because of the price tag. I might have brushed him off too, had he not said that your education is comparable anywhere (which Dr. Magnusson said to me first) but that you have opportunities for all the things you want to get involved with ANYWHERE (ie: I wanted to explore zoo medicine, and learned that zoo vets come from all of the schools, not just the ones with strong programs in zoo medicine).

You have so much to learn about the basics of medicine in vet school that getting specialized primarily happens with where you go after vet school graduation (residency, internships, etc). Schools with competitive programs (in exotics, say) might even be more hindrance than help, because you are suddenly one of a group of people looking to do that specialty. The opportunities for a specialty are everywhere and it almost does look better if you seek out and find those opportunities yourself rather than follow a program where they have everything for you and you are one in 20 versus one in three.

The major things to walk away with, though, is that 1) at the end of the day, you have your DVM. In-state school or not. Each school will give you a comparable education and will prepare you to pass your boards: each school has about a 98% to 100% pass rate of the NAVLE boards. 2) The other thing is that veterinary school is only 4 years of your very long life. Four years is a while but in the grand scheme of your life…its over fast. For better or worse, vet school ends quick. 3) At each school, you can make your own opportunities for the things you want to get involved with, you don’t have to close any doors on your dream veterinary profession. 4) Your in-state school’s tuition is an opportunity to not be in debt for 25-30 years, which may be more years than you’ve been alive. It’s hard to comprehend that much debt at the moment. You may even come to terms with never paying off your debt. But that means no retirement. That also means saying no (or at least putting so many more obstacles, mud pits, rings of fire, a zombie T-rex raised from the dead) to the other things in your life that matter such as getting married, buying a house, etc etc.

That finally made things click and got the gears rolling. It didn’t hurt that I’m now having interviews and those numbers are more tangible than ever. I’m going to vet school, period. That is no longer a question. But now the cost is very real. And suddenly 100k is terrifying. My car bills have been scary enough and those are NOTHING compared to the education price tag. Shoot, for 100k I could buy over 30 of my Ford Taurus car. I could have a whole fleet.

And then there are the other costs in life that I hadn’t been thinking about with school on my mind. But getting married ain’t cheap. Having kids ain’t cheap. A house ain’t cheap. There’s plenty of things that will run you into the ground with debt. How are those even possible with 30 years of debt already on the table? So yeah, four years of not going to my dream school is totally worth being able to someday get hitched, maybe have kids, and at least not live in a box for the rest of my life.

The veterinarian perspective, by Dr. Greg Magnusson

All stunning points, Kristen, and I’d like to add a few more perspectives.

I’ll admit, my first draft of this article was pretty preachy, probably because I’m a daddy now with bills to pay, and money plays such a huge role in everyone’s life that I’d like you to graduate veterinary school with as little debt as possible so you can enjoy greater freedom for the rest of your life.

This version is much kinder, but hopefully we still get the message across, that choosing to attend the least expensive veterinary school – and/or in whatever way possible, minimizing your student loan debt – can dramatically alter your lifetime freedom of choice.

A financial reality check

Much as it pains me to admit this about our fine profession, veterinary colleges are kind of making a name for themselves in the modern press by singling out and shouldering our graduates with the most crushing, oppressive, crippling student loan debt loads compared to starting salary, in all of history. The problem is so bad now, that student loan debt in young veterinary graduates is one of the biggest threats to the entire veterinary profession today.

Take a quick glance at the wonderful work my friend Dr. Eden Myers has put together on her site, JustVetData.

Let’s select out a few examples from Dr. Myers’ calculations:

  • If you live in Indiana, and go to Purdue University (Boiler Up!) it will cost you about $150,000 to go to veterinary school.
  • If you live in Indiana, but go to Ohio State (Go Buckeyes!) instead as a non-resident, it will cost you about $258,000 to go to veterinary school.
  • If you live in Indiana, but go to Ross veterinary school in the Caribbean (Sun Tan City!), it will cost you about $311,000 to go to veterinary school.

For most students, it would cost between $100,000 and $150,000 MORE to go to veterinary school out-of-state.

Image taken from

Now, let’s put this into perspective…

What else could you buy with $100,000?

A two week vacation in the Carribbean for one person costs what, maybe $3,000? And you don’t have to do any schoolwork, see any patients, even answer the phone if you want to. You could go on an all-inclusive two week Carribbean vacation every single year during veterinary school, for a grand total of no more than $12,000.

You can buy a brand new 2016 Toyota Corolla for about $17,000. If you go to school in-state instead of out-of-state, you could potentially buy FIVE brand new Corrolas and still have money left over!

You can buy an entire house in Indianapolis for about $126,000, and it takes most people their entire lives to pay off their mortgage.

In-state tuition, plus one of these, is STILL $35-$85,000 cheaper than out-of-state tuition.

Or hell, let’s get decadent. You can buy a BRAND NEW 2016 BMW M4 CONVERTABLE for the low, low price of only $65,000.

Do YOU think you deserve a brand new BMW as a graduation present from veterinary school? If you feel you do, you are welcome to go to school in-state, and buy yourself one (it costs $1,171/mo to pay that loan back, by the way) and you’ll STILL SAVE MONEY.

Hopefully, my point is clear here. You’re a SCIENTIST, not a fool.

Just because some bank will loan you money doesn’t mean you should take it.

You’re leveraging your ENTIRE LIFE’S FUTURE here against your four year “vacation” at an out-of-state veterinary school.

But I heard that so-and-so veterinary school was “better” than my in-state option!

Let’s examine that further.

According to the latest 2015 rankings, Purdue University is the 30th best veterinary school on the planet. Ohio State is 25th, Tufts is 34th. Yes, it’s true, UC Davis is ranked #1 in the world, and Cornell is #2. It would cost you $253,000 to go to UC Davis, or $272,000 to go to Cornell. Are those great veterinary schools? Absolutely. Do they prepare you better to enter the big scary real world?

This lovely graph comes from the American Veterinary Medical Association:

by the way… interns only make about $25,000/year.

What it says is that about 2/3 of veterinary graduates pursue post-graduate internships, which probably suggests that most veterinary graduates do not feel ready to practice at the end of veterinary school.

It makes logical sense, then, that you should focus more on finding yourself an amazing mentor or an amazing first job after veterinary school, where you can learn the ropes, and save yourself the pain and agony of carrying around an additional $100,000 worth of debt on your back for the rest of your life.

Let’s put this into perspective: you can buy in-state tuition, PLUS A HOUSE, or ONE OR TWO NEW SPORTS CARS, or go on an ALL EXPENSES PAID CARIBBEAN VACATION EVERY YEAR FOR THE NEXT 50 YEARS, for what it would cost to go to veterinary school out-of state for four years.

Is it really a good idea to pay an extra $100,000 to $150,000 to go out-of-state, when you can get essentially the exact same veterinary education for way cheaper in-state?

Maybe not…?

Do Future Grown-up Adult You a huge favor…

Go to the least expensive veterinary school you’re allowed to attend, don’t buy ANYTHING while you’re there to keep your post-graduate debt as close to zero as you possibly can, and focus on making connections with mentors who can help you achieve your real life goals, after graduation.

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