By Eleanor Green
Last Sunday in the Amarillo Globe-News, Texas Tech University officials expressed their desire for a new veterinary school to address a “potential” shortage of veterinarians specializing in large animals and serving rural communities, although the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board confirmed in July there is no need for a second veterinary college.
I thank AGN for the opportunity to explain what Texas A&M; University’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, and West Texas A&M; University, are doing to address the Panhandle’s veterinary needs.
In 2009, when the Coordinating Board urged Texas A&M; to increase enrollment, the Legislature could not pay for the necessary facilities because of the recession. Instead, Texas A&M; tapped the Permanent University Fund to build a $120 million complex for veterinary education.
This month we opened our new facility and will increase the entering class to 162 students – tied for the nation’s largest. That’s an additional 30 students each year, and we can increase it to meet future needs. Larger classes are important to the Texas Panhandle because we are targeting most new seats to address two needs: More minorities and more students willing to work in rural areas and with large animals.
Earlier we announced that we are expanding veterinary education, research and undergraduate outreach at West Texas A&M;, Prairie View A&M;, Texas A&M-Kingsville; and Tarleton State. All have unique ties to important agricultural industries, and each school has significant minority populations.
In May, we hired two experienced professionals to launch Texas A&M; Veterinary Medical Center at WT. Dr. Dee Griffin is director and Dr. Dan Posey is coordinator of educational programs. They will collaborate with faculty and students at WT to build a program meeting the region’s veterinary education needs while serving the livestock industries.
They also will identify promising students and help them pursue a veterinary education. Our thinking is that mentored WT students are more likely to return to rural communities after graduation. Additionally, we can bring more veterinary students to the Texas Panhandle from other parts of the state, exposing them to opportunities through externships, summer internships, and research.
While Tech officials argue they won’t duplicate our efforts, they are asking the Legislature for almost $17 million next year as a down payment on their proposal – money we could use to ramp up efforts in the Texas Panhandle and elsewhere for an even broader impact.
That’s really the issue: What’s the most cost-effective way to train more rural veterinarians? Of the 6,660 veterinarians in Texas, only 180 are livestock veterinarians working in rural areas. As they move toward retirement, how do we meet the livestock industry’s needs?
Tech officials said their “innovative” program will focus on large animal veterinarians without duplicating our efforts. Truth is, neither accreditation standards, nor economic realities will allow that.
To make a living, most rural veterinarians have to treat small and large animals.
Tech Chancellor Robert Duncan acknowledged to the Texas Tribune: “Rural vets treat small animals and large animals. Even as a matter of accreditation, you have to have the broad spectrum of education.”
So where’s the innovation? Tech officials propose building a school without a teaching hospital. Since students have to learn surgery somewhere, they would outsource it to local clinics and veterinarians, claiming it’s cheaper and will reduce student debt. Other schools using that method actually prove more expensive, not less, while Texas A&M; is a leader in cost-efficiency.
Texas A&M; veterinary students have the second lowest debt load in the nation, and our tuition and fees are in the bottom third of U.S. veterinary schools. We achieved that with high standards. In 2015, our veterinary college was ranked third in the nation and sixth best in the world.
In effect, Tech is proposing that taxpayers build and pay for the ongoing cost of a start-up veterinary college under the guise it can address one state need – more rural veterinarians – without diverting resources from other veterinary needs. It won’t. Our plan will accomplish what Tech claims to do, plus we will address the needs of the Texas Panhandle and the rest of the state at a fraction of the cost.
I understand the lure of Tech’s argument about an economic boost to Amarillo, but the Coordinating Board’s July report notes “the job market for veterinarians may be at or near saturation.”
Texas Workforce Commission projects 195 annual openings for veterinarians in Texas and the Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting 2,700 graduates chasing 1,900 openings nationally.
We don’t have a shortage of veterinary colleges. We have a shortage of graduates who want to work in the rural areas. Our program at WT will address that. It is better to focus on how to recruit and incentivize students to practice in rural areas than to saddle taxpayers with the costly overhead of a second veterinary college.