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Veterinary School Applications Are Up 19% — What Does that Mean for the Profession?

Data showing the application spike comes from the AAVMC’s Veterinary Medical Colleges Application Service. Whether the increase is artificial remains to be seen, says Lisa Greenhill, AAVMC senior director for institutional research and diversity.

Patricia WuestVice President of Media Strategy, NAVC

Veterinary School Applications Are Up 19% — What Does that Mean for the Profession?
Veterinary school applications showed an astonishing increase, but Dr. Lisa Greenhill, AAVMC senior director for institutional research and diversity, says that not only is the spike most likely temporary but of greater concern is the lack of diversity in the current veterinary college applicant pool. Photo: Shutterstock.com/TeroVesalainen

The number of applicants to DVM programs during the 2020-21 admissions cycle had everyone saying “wow,” including the Veterinary Medical College Application Service (VMCAS), which is a clearinghouse for applications to 44 member institutions, most based in North America. The VMCAS data showed a 19% jump from the prior year.

Overall, 10,273 people applied to at least 1 veterinary school, an increase from 8,645 last year, according to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC). The 19% increase compared with recent annual rises of 6% to 7%. The number of VMCAS applicants has been on a steady climb since 2015, when 6,600 aspiring veterinarians applied to start school in fall 2016.

AAVMC says that several factors may be at play: the application cycle was longer, opening 4 months earlier than usual (in January rather than in May), and AAVMC focused on outreach, providing applicants with access to a greater number of informational webinars and increased communication.

Though the AAVMC called the spike “extraordinary,” Dr. Lisa Greenhill, MPA, EdD, senior director for institutional research and diversity at the AMVMC and Diversity Toolbox columnist for sister publication Today’s Veterinary Business, cautioned against viewing the trend as a long-term one.

Sounding a Note of Caution

“While this year’s numbers are exciting, I view them with a bit of concern about the pool over the next 5 years,” she wrote in an email in response to questions from Today’s Veterinary Practice. “It is a well-established trend that graduate school applications rise when the economy tanks, and the reasons for economic downturn are largely inconsequential. Overall, graduate school applications jumped over 8% in 2008, the beginning of the last major recession; given the abrupt shift in the U.S. and global economies due to the COVID-19 pandemic, increase applicant numbers were to be expected.”

Dr. Greenhill says that it’s likely a number of applicants may have been triggered by the pandemic to apply earlier than they planned. “This is concerning because first-year undergraduate enrollment fell dramatically this fall — this means that the typical pool that we would’ve seen in 3-4 years will be affected and we’ve already pulled applicants who might’ve applied in that window. Long-term undergraduate enrollment projections were already expected to drop in 2025 due to low birth rates during the last recession. Overall, while this increase looks positive now, it signals an early contraction of the applicant pool in the out years. I’ll be surprised if the increases we are seeing are sustainable over the next several years.”

Dr. Greenhill’s assessment is supported by data compiled by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which publishes data and insights about student enrollment, among other research findings. As of Sept. 24, 2020, about one month into the fall 2020 semester, U.S. undergraduate enrollment had fallen 4% compared to the same time last year, and the upward trend in graduate enrollment had slowed to 2.7%. Overall, that translates to overall postsecondary enrollment showing a downward trend, slipping down 3% compared to the same time last year.

“It will be interesting to see what the enrollment figures look like a year from now, especially if the pandemic and economic turmoil persists,” Dr. Greenhill wrote.

Considering Diversity in the Process

The focus on the bump in veterinary school applications also ignores some important considerations, such as the diversity of the applicant pool. Dr. Green says there is a discrepancy between the diversity of applicants to undergraduate schools as compared to that of the current population in veterinary colleges.

“The larger high education trends should give us pause and make us think meaningfully about diversity in the context of recruiting future applicants,” she says. “Non-white and lower-income applicants are sitting out of higher education this year, which means fewer applicants of color and applicants from lower socioeconomic levels may enter our applicant pools later.”

It’s critical to get the messaging right for generations of young people, says Dr. Greenhill. “Gen Zs and Gen Alphas are choosing their paths based on more than passion — they have a desire to have multiple careers that fit into the lives they want to have, rather than create those lives. They have greater comfort in discussing social issues and tying them to a much bigger picture. Meanwhile, veterinary medicine is still hosting programming on Millennials, the first wave of whom are about to turn 40! It really speaks to a resistance to understanding how to position ourselves for the future.”

Long term, Dr. Greenhill says that what’s needed in the profession to ensure that a veterinary career is perceived as a good choice by young people is for veterinarians to be better advocates for the profession. “I am not suggesting that professionals not be honest about the challenges of professional life,” she wrote, “but I think that increased discussion on what brings joy and meaning to individuals within the profession is critically important.

“We need to move away from the oft-heard characterization that veterinary medicine is unique,” she says. “The challenges experienced within the profession are not unique; in fact, they are experienced by many professions, including other health professions. I know there is a desire to try to focus on the things happening within the profession, but if I had a wish for the future of the profession it would be for the profession to really leverage relationships with other professions to jointly work on how to create better lives and improve work experiences. This kind of collaboration is something I think young people will be looking for as they consider what to pursue professionally.”

The AAVMC noted that students in the most recent cycle applied to an average of 4.89 schools. The transcription verification process is complete, and AAVMC expects to release final application numbers soon.

Forty-four veterinary programs worldwide use the Veterinary Medical College Application Service (VMCAS). Every U.S. veterinary school participates, with the exception of Texas A&M and Texas Tech universities.

The 2021-22 application cycle will open in January 2021.