Eden Myers, DVM, MS
Ryan G. Gates, DVM
"...it could be worse. Consider the plight of veterinarians. The average tuition and expenses for a veterinary degree at a private school has doubled in the last 10 years...yet their pay remains moribund..."Overview
--Steven M. Davidoff, "The Economics of Law School."1
The veterinary profession is currently suffering the effects of decades of decisions based on unexamined beliefs and subjective surveys rather than objective, statistically valid evidence. With respect to workforce needs and career opportunities, we are operating in the dark. There are signs of potential improvement, most notably the 2013 AVMA-IHS Veterinary Workforce Study. We must improve qualitatively, though, if we are to better the economic condition of our profession- which we must do to maintain the quality of service we provide to society.
In this series of posts, we examine policy decisions made in the absence of sound data. The series consists of:
- Meet the Pink Elephant in the Room: Gender in Veterinary Medicine - 5/2/13; PDF
- Meeting Ourselves, Coming and Going: Maldistribution - 5/13/13; PDF
- Meet Big Veterinary: How the AAVMC Could Serve Students Better - 5/17/13; PDF
- Meet Big Veterinary: How the AVMA Could Serve Its Members Better - 5/22/13; PDF
- Meet Big Ed: Schooling Veterinarians is Big Business - 6/12/13; PDF
Meet Big Veterinary: How the AAVMC Could Serve Students Better
While there is much we don't know about the veterinary workforce, such as the impact of the gender swing and the extent and character of maldistribution, what we do know suggests that organizations in veterinary medicine act in ways which benefit the organization more than the membership. This is despite the belief that they are acting for the greater good. We feel this belief, that whatever benefits their particular organization must therefore benefit the overall profession, is a major reason our profession remains so ignorant of itself. To quote Upton Sinclair,
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something,
when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"2
The belief that the financial benefits of its actions extend to the profession beyond the organization - or even to the organization's constituency beyond the leadership- is contradicted by the organizations' own data.
As an example, let's look at the American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC). The AAVMC operates a centralized universal application service, the Veterinary Medical College Application Service (VMCAS), which streamlines the application process by providing a single standardized application format. The organization provides the technical and operational support to process and deliver the applications.
The table below presents selected budget parameters from the AAVMC's annual report summaries.
As can be seen here, the AAVMC generates the bulk of its revenue from VMCAS application fees; 65%, 69% and 70% in 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively.
Despite raising more revenue than ever, the AAVMC has run a significant deficit for all three years.
This deficit did not come from spending to provide the service that generates the revenue; the percent increase in spending on VMCAS that AAVMC reports is exactly equal to the percent increase in VMCAS revenue in 2010 and 2011; in 2012, VMCAS expenditure did go up 2% more than the increase AAVMC levied on applicants.
Rather, AAVMC has used the profit it generates from VMCAS to increase general operational spending by 10% in 2012 over 2010 despite running in the red every year. It also uses VMCAS revenue to subsidize services of benefit primarily to administrative personnel at member institutions- notably annual meetings and the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education. These services, of indirect value at best to applicants, lost a total of $1.5 million dollars over the three years. The annual meeting is now an event which costs almost $300,000 a year more than it brings in from attendee registration fees.
We are not arguing that a centralized application service is not valuable to applicants and to schools. Just that the service benefits those providing the service far more than those providing the revenue by using the service. This is largely due to the AAVMC's strategy of using it as a primary revenue generator.
Let's examine the value of the service to schools. Nine AAVMC member institutions do not even allow applicants to use it; another eight only use it for some applicants and three don't even tell AAVMC whether they use it or not.6 Thus nearly half the member institutions- 20 of 45- receive no benefit from the VMCAS service. Obviously, applicants to those twenty schools also do not receive the full benefit of a centralized, streamlined application process either.
With only half its member institutions using the service, AAVMC clearly needs to make VMCAS more valuable to schools. Not being intimately associated with the administration of a veterinary medical college the authors will not presume sufficient knowledge to make specific suggestions. Presumably those twenty member institutions would be willing and able to do so- or maybe even have.
We have a suggestion on how AAVMC could make VMCAS more valuable to both schools and the applicants- you know, those ponying up the money. Rather than using VMCAS fees to fund its general operations, annual meeting and journal- the organization could spend the majority of the money finding ways to match applicants with the right school instead of having them apply to more and more schools. The AAVMC could use the data its members already generate on applicants, applications, student achievement and post graduation outcomes to develop algorithms that match a given applicant to the one or two schools where he or she is most likely to succeed both as a student and as a veterinarian.
This would mean making changes to VMCAS, as discussed above, to make it more attractive to all its member institutions so more applicants could participate in the system. This would also mean the AAVMC would make less money. As seen above, the bulk of AAVMC's budget is provided by the fees paid by applicants to submit veterinary school applications through VMCAS. Below are the numbers that AAVMC has on their website detailing numbers of applicants, applications and average number of applications per applicants:
Suppose the AAVMC did develop tools that enabled students and colleges to successfully connect by submitting only 1 or 2 applications. The number of applications would drop to 1 or 2 times the number of applicants, as applicants would only need to apply to 1 or 2 programs. Thus the table above would look like this...
As the table above shows, were the AAVMC to act in a way that most benefitted those using and paying for the service it provides, its revenue would drop drastically. Few organizations can survive change of this magnitude. The profession is fortunate that AAVMC is under the capable leadership of Executive Director Andrew McCabe and President Dean Kochevar at this critical period.
We applaud the association's attempt to get back in black8 by reducing some costs and slightly increasing fees and dues to its institutional members in 2012. This did achieve an impressive five figure spending deficit reduction. However, the organization still incurred a six figure spending deficit for the year. In order to secure a sustainable financial position, the AAVMC needs to further increase dues and fees on the institutional users of its services, and then modify, reduce or discontinue services that prove to be poor value propositions to the users of those services.
The veterinarian's journey officially begins with entry to vet school. We all still remember getting that letter. As the first step on that journey, the application process is an opportunity to establish a mutually beneficial relationship between student and profession that is founded on trust and value. Instead the AAVMC encourages prevets to run up a bill of hundreds of dollars just to apply, not because it is the best thing for either the students or the colleges, but because it is the best thing for AAVMC's bottom line. Unfortunately, for many this accurately presages the overpriced education, abusive so called internship and unprofitable uncareer that follows.
(1) Davidoff, SM. "The Economics of Law School." Deal Book, 24 September 2012. Web. Accessed: 11/13/2012. Available at: <http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2012/09/24/the-economics-of-law-school/>
(2) Sinclair, Upton. I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked (1935). p. 109., ISBN 0-520-08198-6; repr. University of California Press, 1994.
(3) AAVMC Annual Report 2010-2011 website. Web. Accessed: 1/13/2013. Available at: <http://www.aavmc.org/data/files/other%20publications/aavmc2011arfinal.pdf>
(4) AAVMC Annual Report 2009-2010 website. Accessed: 11/12/2012. Available at: <http://www.aavmc.org/data/files/other%20publications/annual%20report%202010%20-%20final.pdf>
(5) AAVMC Annual Report 2011-2012. Accessed: 12/3/2012. Available at: <http://www.aavmc.org/data/files/other%20publications/2012annreport.pdf>
(6) AAVMC Membership General Information Chart - VMCAS 2013. Accessed 3/4/2013. Available at: <http://www.justvetdata.com/aavmc_seat_chart_2013>
(7) AAVMC VMCAS Statistics 2009-2013. Accessed: 1/13/2013. Available at: <http://www.aavmc.org/Public-Data/VMCAS-Statistics.aspx>
(8) Mierendorf, M. "Cultural Impact: AC/DC - 'Back In Black.'" Cultural Transmogrifier Magazine. 2 August 2012. Accessed: 12/13/2012. Available at: <http://www.ctzine.com/cultural-impact-acdc-back-in-black/> AC/DC's "Back In Black" followed a time of upheaval and change for the band. Having experienced the death of lead singer, Bon Scott, four months prior to the album's release, the band was at a crossroads and considering breaking up. After reuniting with "Highway to Hell" producer Mutt Lange and following the addition of Brian Johnson as their new lead singer, the band released what would become one of the most successful rock albums of all time. Triumph was realized through adversity with calculated, bold decisions. The same could and ought to be said for our profession.