BENTONVILLE -- Arkansas State University took another step toward bringing the first public veterinary school to the state Friday, as the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved the university's plan to establish the College of Veterinary Medicine and to offer a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree.
Todd Shields, ASU's chancellor, can't remember the last time he's gone more than a week without receiving at least one phone call about the veterinary school, either from interested students, veterinarians in the state eager for help and ready to assist with the school, or potential donors.
"There's so much demand [for veterinarians], and so much need," he said.
He even recently met with representatives from Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort -- which has the state's horse racing track -- eager for interns from the veterinary school, and "we have an equine center at Arkansas State, already," which could make that a felicitous partnership.
The goal is for the first group of students to begin their veterinary studies in the fall of 2025, Shields said.
"That's our hope, if everything goes right," he said.
But he said there are still more steps that need to be completed -- such as approval from national regulatory organizations -- so launching in the fall of 2026 remains a possibility.
The program's enrollment is projected to be 120 students in each cohort -- split essentially evenly between Arkansans and non-Arkansans -- and retain 98% of those students each year, according to the proposal.
In the fall of 2021, 42 Arkansas residents were enrolled as first-year students in out-of-state veterinary medical colleges/schools across the United States. The Arkansas Health Education Grant program provides financial assistance to students seeking professional training in myriad areas -- including veterinary medicine -- at out-of-state institutions.
The Arkansas Health Education Grant program spends more than $1 million annually for veterinary medical education and has only 36 total slots, with only nine new slots each year, according to the proposal. Therefore, 33 of the 42 Arkansas students face the higher cost of nonresident tuition and likelihood of substantial student education loans.
Students who receive their veterinary education out of state are likely to remain there, too, while those who'd study in Arkansas would be more apt to remain in this state, Shields said. Why force them "to go out of state when we can do this [education] here?"
Overall program costs for the first three years are estimated at $7,114,296 in the first year, $8,182,296 in the second year, and $11,198,296 in year three, with overall first-year revenue estimated at $5,280,000, $10,472,000 for year two, and $15,576,000 for the third year, according to the proposal. Arkansas residents will be charged $17,000 per semester, while out-of-state students will be charged $27,000 per semester.
Both of those rates are below the national and regional averages for veterinary tuition, and "the job prospects are great," Shields said. "It's surprising [Arkansas] doesn't have a veterinary school already, considering this is an agricultural state."
The university will utilize existing space on campus for classroom instruction and renovation of existing facilities on the Arkansas State Research and Instructional Farm, according to the university. Additional facility needs may present later, and the university is considering a bond issuance of $15 million, but philanthropic donations and other funding sources may render bonding unnecessary.
A $15 million bond would be "a worst-case scenario," Shields said. "I think we'll have" philanthropic funds, as "there's been lots of interest in donating already."
In March, ASU received approval from the Arkansas State University System board of trustees to offer a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree and establish a College of Veterinary Medicine.
Dr. Glen Hoffsis -- who has been dean of veterinary colleges at Ohio State University and the University of Florida -- was named founding dean of the college last month. The future College of Veterinary Medicine will add a faculty and support staff of approximately 40 professionals.
ASU will operate its veterinary school under a distributed model where students will work with the state's veterinarians in the field to get hands-on experience and "learn at the speed of business," Shields said. Another benefit is that students get to know that veterinary clinic and the community it's in, and -- when they do that -- they're more likely to remain in that community to practice after graduation.
Arkansas ranks 49th in the U.S. for veterinarians per population with only 14 veterinarians per 100,000 people, according to veterinarians.org.
Lyon College, meanwhile, is planning to open a veterinary school, too, either next year or in 2025.
The private college, which is based in Batesville, would open its School of Veterinary Medicine in Little Rock.
"I don't look at it like competition," Shields said of Lyon College's school. "If we graduate 120 veterinarians a year, that still wouldn't come close to meeting the demand," Shields said.
In fact, he said, he's interested in working with Lyon College on various specialties, as not every veterinary school can offer every possible specialty.
Dr. Eleanor Green -- professor emerita and dean emerita of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University, who was named founding dean of the Lyon College School of Veterinary Medicine in late May -- said Friday her new school is awaiting accreditation from the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education.
"If everything goes well, we're looking at taking our first class in the fall of 2025 and we're also looking at class sizes of up to 100 to 120," said Green, who was attending the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission meeting on Friday in Hot Springs.
She said her new school's location in Little Rock "puts it in the nerve center of Arkansas."
"We can leverage things like a diagnostic lab to help train these students, we can leverage the poultry industry, we can leverage the Farm Bureau, we can leverage so many things that are right there that will make this a unique school with ties across the state," Green said.
Prospective students may get clinical experience at a teaching hospital or at active veterinary practices, Green said.
"We're going to have what is called a distributive model, so it's going to be a lot of hands-on [work] and then they're going to go out with active practices and it's going to be a two-way interview," Green said.
"The students are going to get a lot of practice in existing practices. There are a lot of practices that are very high quality and do a great job. ... It also allows great flexibility in the path that a student chooses. ... They'll have some core rotations they have to take, then they've got to take a lot of electives and we can make sure they are really practice-ready."
Lyon College is also planning to open a dental school, which would be the state's first, in Little Rock.
Hoffsis, who was also attending the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission meeting on Friday in Hot Springs, said that some of the assets at Arkansas State -- citing, for example, the College of Agriculture's animal facilities, an equine program with an arena, and all of the agricultural species with facilities -- "can be brought to bear on a veterinary school," which needs them for teaching and research.
He also said ASU's College of Sciences and Mathematics has "a lot of scientists that support a pre-veterinary program as well as agriculture. So, there are faculty assets there."
Other ASU assets that could be beneficial to the new school include an undergraduate pre-veterinary program, a pre-veterinary club and the Arkansas Biosciences Institute that could provide research opportunities, Hoffsis said.
MEETING THE DEMAND
"I commend you for" creating a veterinary school, Jim Carr, secretary of the Higher Education Coordinating Board, told the Arkansas State University delegation in Bentonville on Friday.
"I've said for years that we need a veterinary school -- and a dental school -- in the state."
The Higher Education Coordinating Board held its meeting at Northwest Arkansas Community College, which has the state's largest enrollment of community college students.
Nationally, more than 40,000 new veterinarians will be needed to meet projected demand in 2030, and more than 75 million pets in the U.S. may not have access to veterinary care by 2030 without intervention, according to a 2021 report by Mars Veterinary Health, a network of 2,500 veterinary clinics and hospitals.
Pet care appointments increased 6.5% in 2021, nearly 2,000 baby boomer veterinarians are retiring annually, and it would take more than 30 years of graduates to meet the 10-year industry need for credentialed veterinary technicians.
"I know that creating our own College of Veterinary Medicine not only gives students a chance to stay home and choose A-State, it also creates great interdisciplinary opportunities among our current and future faculty to collaborate on research," ASU Provost Calvin White Jr. said in a news release from the university on Friday.
ASU "will be the only public university where graduate faculty, major biological research facilities, a medical school and a veterinary college can all collaborate on the same campus."
ASU has the state's largest graduate schools, a College of Sciences and Mathematics with a large pre-professional program, the College of Agriculture's research and farm spaces, the Arkansas Biosciences Institute at ASU and the on-campus partner for potential research or collaboration in the New York Institute of Technology's College of Osteopathic Medicine, according to the university.
ASU will proceed with submission of the approval and its plans to the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education, the world's leading accrediting body for colleges of veterinary medicine.