You’ve done it! Those years of hard work, countless sleepless nights of studying, and rotations with numerous professors have paid off—and, you have earned the right to place those three little letters after your name—DVM.

But those letters come with a hefty price tag. And the task of repaying that debt can be overwhelming at best.

Thankfully, loan repayment programs have been established to help new veterinarians lighten the load. And often, rural communities benefit as much as the recipient.

Christine B. Navarre, DVM, MS, DACVIM, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, La., serves on the American Association of Bovine Practitioners’ (AABP) Rural Practice Sustainability Committee.

She says the average debt a veterinary school graduate accumulates is approaching $150,000. The typical cattle practitioner earns a little less than $70,000 in his or her first year, not including unpaid internships.

With that vast difference in pay versus debt, worry is an understandable response.

“It’s very scary to them,” Dr. Navarre says. “Students take this very seriously, and it worries them. When you look at a 3:1 debt to salary ratio, it’s pretty tough. They have to make tough decisions—sometimes taking a job that isn’t their first choice, so that their spouse can also find a job. And it can sometimes prevent them from purchasing a home or buying into a practice.”

That’s where the AABP Rural Practice Sustainability Committee comes into play. This group of professionals is dedicated to helping new cattle veterinarians find grants and loan repayment programs to help offset their enormous debt load.

“The committee began a couple of years ago,” Dr. Navarre says. “We had heard for years it was difficult for practices to find vets willing to move into rural areas. Most recently, we began hearing there weren’t jobs. After much research, we discovered the issue is more about underserved areas, not necessarily the need for more vets.”

The committee is also working to help rural practices by offering business tools and tips, including seminars and webinars to help develop their rural practices.

Among the greatest programs in place, to date, is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP), which provides incentives for veterinarians to move to rural areas.

Reaching For Rural

The VMLRP will pay up to $25,000 each year toward those loans for veterinarians who agree to serve in a National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) designated veterinarian shortage area for three years.

“The hope is these veterinarians will be in those practices long term,” Navarre says.

Justin Roberts, DVM, is part owner of the Kentwood Veterinary Clinic, Kentwood, La., and participated in the VMLRP after he graduated from the LSU veterinary medicine school in 2009, where he accumulated nearly $110,000 in student loans.

“It’s tough when you want to get a family started,” Dr. Roberts says. “Trying to buy a house and continually grow a practice is a pretty big load, especially coming to a rural practice where you wouldn’t quite make the same amount as if you moved to a more populated area.”

Having grown up in the Kentwood area, Dr. Roberts became interested in the VMLRP as a chance to repay his debt while returning to his home community.

“I worked with some of our local vets as a undergraduate student worker,” he says. “And it worked out that one was about 70 and was ready to retire as I graduated. I got in touch with our state veterinarian and we worked together on the proposal for the designated shortage situation.”

Dr. Roberts says the application was lengthy. But the process was worth it, as he was one of 32 recipients from across the country during the first year of the program. He received $25,000 each year for a three-year commitment.

Meeting requirements

Dr. Roberts qualified for the program under Type I Shortage (80 Percent or Greater Private Practice Food Supply Veterinary Medicine). Veterinarians may also qualify as Type II Shortage (30 Percent or Greater Private Practice Food Supply Veterinary Medicine in a Rural Area) or Type III Shortage (Public Practice Shortage, 49 percent-time or Greater Public Practice).

Many states also offer veterinary loan repayment programs with various requirements and rewards. A comprehensive list of these programs can be found through the American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA) website here.

Programs such as these help fill a growing void in rural areas.

Why The Need

Dr. Navarre says rural practitioners are needed for a variety of reasons, one of which is public health.

“Whether small animal practices are working to prevent rabies, ringworm or leptospirosis, these diseases can be transmitted to humans,” she says. “In addition, rural practitioners are needed for food safety issues. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is putting more and more pressure on veterinarians being in charge of drug use, and when a vet is not in a rural area, it’s more difficult to have that veterinarian involved. When we have a lack of veterinary care in an area, it can affect human health, too.”

Not only does the program benefit the communities, but it obviously benefits the recipient, too. Of course, the financial benefits of loan repayment programs are great. Other benefits abound, as well, Dr. Navarre says.

“I may be biased, but these vets get to live in a rural community in the lifestyle they love,” she says. “Not only is the vet taking care of animals and public health, but they’re also able to be active on the school board and Kiwanis Club. I think a professional can benefit the whole community, and vice versa.”

And in some cases, such as for Dr. Roberts, the loan repayment programs also help professionals return to their home communities. He says the loan repayment program has allowed him the opportunity to practice food animal medicine in his home area—a luxury he may not have had, otherwise.

“To be able to practice in my home area would have been tough the first few years without the award,” he says. “I probably could have gone to work in another part of the country, but it’s much nicer to be closer to family.”

And, Dr. Roberts says, the award is providing this opportunity to many others in similar situations.

“It’s a definite incentive for students who would consider different routes for practice,” he says. “Now, hopefully, they can continue doing what they enjoy the most. It’s not such a financial burden for them, and it will greatly benefit the area to have a vet that enjoys the practice.”

Words of wisdom

For those who are soon to be in the job market, Dr. Navarre and Dr. Roberts offer a few words of advice.

Dr. Navarre recommends recent graduates be flexible when seeking a job.

“Everyone has a ‘perfect job’ in mind, and where it’s going to be,” she says. “Keep your options open, and take advantage of every opportunity to get extra skills and meet people. You never know how meeting the right person might help you along the way.”

Dr. Roberts agrees. Networking can benefit new graduates in many ways.

“Talk to your state vet and talk to the food animal professors at your vet school,” he says. “You can never ask too many questions.”

And, he says, nothing can take the place of experience, when it comes to searching for that first position after graduation.

“Try to get as much hands-on experience as possible,” he says. “Take as many of your food animal rotations as possible. It’s good to get out and see how private practitioners do it, as well. I went with our professor on pregnancy checks in vet school as often as I could, even if I wasn’t on his rotation, just to get the experience.”

By doing the research and making the connections, recent graduates can find help with the overwhelming burden of veterinary school loans. Not only does the veterinarian benefit, but communities across the country are reaping the rewards, as well.