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April 29, 2024 Focus: Higher Education

Legislature considers restoring grant program to help reduce veterinarian shortage

HBJ PHOTO | DAVID KRECHEVSKY Dr. Mark Albin is a veterinarian with the Powder Ridge Veterinary Hospital in Middlefield. He said the state’s vet shortage is so severe that a new associate veterinarian his practice recently hired fielded job offers from 17 other nearby hospitals.
There are only three schools in the Northeast that offer veterinary medicine programs.
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The numbers may surprise any reasonable person, but especially anyone who owns a pet.

There are 3,896 accredited colleges and universities in the United States, and just 33, or 0.85%, of them offer veterinary medicine programs. By comparison, more than 100 schools nationwide offer degrees in video game design.

The lack of programs is particularly acute in the Northeast, with just three schools, all private, offering programs — Tufts University in Massachusetts, and Cornell and Long Island universities in New York.

While the University of Connecticut has a well-known College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, it has never had a veterinary medicine program. It did, however, have the Kirklyn M. Kerr grant program, which from 2008 to 2018 paid the tuition for students and allowed them to get a veterinary degree at Iowa State University for nearly the same cost as an Iowa resident.

Funding for that program disappeared during a tough budget cycle seven years ago, but a bill making its way through the state General Assembly this spring seeks to resurrect it.

The proposal is significant because Connecticut, like many other states, has a vet shortage, which has led to longer waits at veterinary emergency rooms (up to eight to 10 hours). It can also take weeks to schedule routine appointments and surgeries.

The Connecticut Veterinary Medical Association last year said a poll of its members found that 74% of practices with open positions for veterinarians have experienced timeframes of over a year to fill those roles.

‘Get it back’

House Bill 5338 revives the Kerr grant program to allow UConn’s president to sign an agreement with an accredited veterinary medicine school to reserve “not more than five” spaces for qualified Connecticut students to attend.

The bill also sought to appropriate $100,000 from the state budget to cover the cost of the program’s first year. If approved, the money would be available during the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2025.

The bill was introduced by the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, and moved earlier this month to Appropriations. That committee, however, voted unanimously on April 15 to approve an amended bill that removed the funding.

That wasn’t really a surprise, given the constraints of the legislature’s short session this year and the desire to avoid going over the state budget’s fiscal guardrails.

Mike Demicco

State Rep. Mike Demicco (D-Farmington), a member of the higher-ed committee who co-sponsored the bill, said after the Appropriations’ vote, that he wasn’t disappointed the funding had been stripped.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to fund it next year,” he said.

The key for him was making the legislature aware of the issue and setting up the grant program for funding in the future.

“Even if we can’t fund it this year, at least get it back,” he said.

The impetus for the bill, Demicco said, was the complaint of a constituent whose daughter had to delay her veterinary school career because she was not initially accepted at the several schools to which she had applied. While the constituent suggested funding a full veterinary medicine program in Connecticut, Demicco said it made more fiscal sense to bring back the grant program, which was named after former UConn College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources Dean Kirklyn M. Kerr.

The General Assembly originally funded the grant program in 2008. Over a nine-year period, it provided $1.5 million to 38 students to attend veterinary school at Iowa State University.

Indrajeet Chaubey

Current UConn College of Agriculture Dean Indrajeet Chaubey testified on behalf of the bill to resurrect the grant program. Chaubey said he understood that it likely would not be funded this year, but he remains optimistic about the future.

He also said UConn does assist graduates who want to pursue a veterinary career in other ways.

“We do have pre-vet programs in two of our departments,” he said. “We make sure that once they graduate, they have all the prerequisite courses, that they fulfill all the requirements to be able to apply to veterinary college.”

He said the school also brings in speakers to discuss what is needed when they apply, and provides academic counselors who assist graduates.

Fierce competition

And yet, that is often not enough to help Connecticut students gain access to fiercely competitive veterinary medicine programs.

According to a 2022 report from the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC), the national acceptance rate for such programs is just 45%. By comparison, the National Association for College Admission Counseling said the average acceptance rate in 2021 for public colleges was 78%, while private colleges averaged 70%.

Chaubey did not have exact figures, but estimated that a similar percentage, roughly 45%, of UConn graduates were successful in applying to veterinary schools.

The AAVMC report noted that just 41 students from Connecticut in 2022 were admitted to veterinary schools nationwide, which means another 50 likely had applied but were not accepted.

When the Kerr grant program was functioning, Chaubey said, some UConn graduates benefited. “When we were working with Iowa State University, … the feedback we were receiving was that our students did quite well,” Chaubey said. “It would be very favorable to continue to have this relationship.”

Dr. Mark Albin agrees. A veterinarian with the Powder Ridge Veterinary Hospital in Middlefield, Albin testified in support of reviving the Kirklyn M. Kerr grant program on behalf of the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Association, for which he is a past president.

Albin earned his doctor of veterinary medicine degree from Auburn University in 1994, but says not much has changed since then to help fill the growing need nationwide for vets.

In his testimony on the bill, he noted that his hospital was “fortunate to hire a new associate veterinarian,” but that she had chosen Powder Ridge over offers from 17 other hospitals.

In an interview with Hartford Business Journal, Albin said all 17 of those offers were from facilities or practices in Connecticut.

“You could probably draw a circle of 25 to 50 miles around Middlefield” that would encompass all the other facilities seeking her services, he said.

It’s personal

Albin also said the issue of resurrecting the grant program is “more personal” for him because his son recently graduated from a pre-veterinary program at UConn, but was unable to win a spot in a veterinary school after his first round of applications.

“Right now, he’s on a waitlist for a couple of schools,” Albin said. “But it looks like he’s going to go to St. George’s University in Grenada.”

St. George’s is one of two veterinary schools located in the Caribbean; the other is Ross University in St. Kitts.

Albin said students who can’t gain admission to U.S. schools often look abroad. One of his son’s friends is enrolled in Granada, while another is a student in Scotland.

“You take advantage of whatever opportunity you can find,” he said.

Albin added that animal hospitals and veterinary facilities desperately need not only veterinarians, but also support staff, including vet technicians, nurses and assistants.

It takes at least eight years to become a vet, including four years to earn a bachelor’s of science degree, and then four more to earn a doctor of veterinary medicine degree. Albin said some veterinarians complete internships, while others may do a three- or four-year residency to train in specialties that include neurology, oncology, anesthesiology or radiology, among others.

All of that training comes at a price. Albin told legislators that student debt after four years of veterinary school can “easily surpass $300,000 to $400,000, depending on the school.”

That’s what makes the Kerr grant program for tuition so beneficial, he said.

“Providing Connecticut veterinary students with an education at a lower tuition through this program will increase the number of doctors in our state at a time when they are sorely needed,” Albin said.

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