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Dairy cows feeding on a farm in northwest Arkansas.

Getty Images/Wesley Hitt

Arkansas State University is exploring a partnership with a for-profit company to build a veterinary medicine school.

While it would be the first such school in the state, it's unclear whether it's necessary, and some question if partnering with a for-profit is a good move for a public institution.

"By arranging for the for-profit to operate on campus, the public university is lending its credibility to a for-profit college," said Robert Shireman, director of higher education excellence and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. "For-profit colleges have a sketchy reputation because of disproportionate consumer abuses."

The company in question is Adtalem Global Education, the parent company of Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, and formerly known as DeVry Education Group. Ross University is a for-profit college based on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. While it's accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association, it's been criticized for saddling graduates with large amounts of debt. The average debt for U.S. graduates of Ross and another veterinary school in the Caribbean is nearly $275,000, which is about $90,000 more than nonresident graduates for veterinary colleges based in the United States.

Starting salaries for vets can be less than $35,000 for internships, according to data from the association, making debt repayment a struggle. The median wage in 2018 for a veterinarian was $93,830.

While the state doesn't have its own veterinary school, it does have partnerships with other public institutions to address that. Paul Jenkins, president of the Arkansas Veterinary Medicine Association and a partner in Vilonia Animal Clinic, said Arkansas has built relationships with public institutions in neighboring states, like Louisiana, to offer spots to Arkansas vet students with in-state tuition rates. But the number of spots at some of those colleges has decreased over time as state funding for the partnerships has shrunk.

While some legislators are concerned that those students don't return to Arkansas, Jenkins said that more than half usually do eventually. They just might do an internship elsewhere before returning home.

"We have a mechanism that has worked really well and can work even better if the state would fund those," he said.

Donald Kennedy, the interim dean of the College of Agriculture at Arkansas State, said student loan debt is a "very big concern of mine and others'."

The college will have an 180-day exploration period before making a decision on the partnership. During this time, Kennedy hopes the task force examining the deal will explore "creative ways to lower student debt."

Elizabeth Story, director of external communications at Adtalem, said the company isn't speculating on the details of the potential partnership, but she said it is "committed to addressing the critical shortage of veterinarians in the United States, and we are excited to be engaging in conversations with Arkansas State University."

When asked about Ross University specifically, Story said its tuition costs are competitive with other private colleges and that its students have a cohort default rate of 1.2 percent. Most veterinary medical schools are public.

"RUSVM’s more than 5,000 graduates practice in almost every state and many foreign countries, providing veterinary workforce solutions with highly respected hospitals and partners like Banfield Pet Hospital, VCA Inc., National Veterinary Associates and Compassion First," she added.

Partnerships between public colleges and private for-profits are a growing trend, according to Noah Black, spokesman for Career Education Colleges and Universities, or CECU. The partnerships can combine the training experiences and employer connections of the for-profits with the larger profiles and student base of public colleges.

One example is a partnership between Louisiana State University and Fullstack Academy, a Zovio subsidiary, to offer coding programs.

CECU supports these partnerships if they can help improve student access and outcomes, Black said.

"What’s important is making sure students are aware of what the full program costs will be and what the expected earnings are," he said.

But some at Arkansas State are nervous about the deal. Erik Gilbert, a professor of history, is concerned there could be pitfalls to the partnership that the college wouldn't foresee, and that it could suck up too much of administrators' time just as higher education faces an enrollment crisis.

"Given the successes of our previous public-private endeavors, it’s not hard to imagine it going wrong in predictable or unpredictable ways," Gilbert said. For example, the college's branded campus in Mexico has fallen short in its enrollment, according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. (This paragraph was updated to remove incorrect information about revenue from such partnerships. Information was added about how some partnerships have fallen short of enrollment goals.)

"We are in an enrollment crisis now. It needs our undivided attention," Gilbert added. "Making a priority of the vet school will mean taking the institutional eye off the enrollment ball."

However, Kennedy said there's been interest in starting a veterinary medicine college for "quite some time."

"What sparked the idea is the need in our region for more veterinarians," he said. "Not only is there no vet medicine college in our state, we are located where we could help neighboring regions."

The task force will be collecting data specific to Arkansas about the demand for more vets in the state during the exploration period, he said.

There is at least one county in the state that is reporting a shortage of vets for food animal medicine, according to the National Institute of Food and AgricultureThe U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts employment for veterinarians in the state will increase by 15.3 percent by 2026.

But Jenkins said the demand for more vets in the state depends on where people go. Small animal practices have many job openings, he said, but it's difficult to determine whether there's a need for more large animal vets.

While those who own large animals, like cattle ranchers or other farmers, might say there's a need, Jenkins said his colleagues see economics as the real issue.

"The fact of the matter is, those people that are consumers of large animal practice sometimes don’t really want to pay for large animal practice," he said.

The proposed partnership would also go after students outside Arkansas, which Jenkins fears could affect the spots saved for Arkansas students elsewhere.

The association is most concerned about whether the for-profit would offer competitive tuition and a quality education, he said. As of right now, the program also wouldn't include clinical training, which is a concern.

"We have to recognize that student debt for veterinary graduates is very high," he said, adding that it's important for students to graduate with as little debt as possible, not only so they can eventually open up their own practices, but also so they can buy homes and start families to contribute to the state's economy.

Shireman cautioned that, while "Arkansas State may require that the for-profit school include language in its materials declaring that they are separate institutions," it could still be liable for "anything that goes wrong, because it is in a business relationship that unavoidably implies an endorsement of whatever the for-profit school does in the future."

Kennedy said the college is looking into partnering with a for-profit because veterinary schools are expensive to start and run, and this model could help the college overcome those costs. When asked how the college would contribute to supporting the program, Kennedy said that is something the task force will work out with Adtalem.

At a Faculty Senate meeting where the proposal was announced, Gilbert said a faculty member asked why the college didn't expand existing popular programs, like the professional graduate programs in the College of Nursing that have to turn applicants away.

Gilbert has two theories as to why the college doesn't pursue this strategy.

"One is that we are so broke that we can’t round up the resources to accommodate an increase in the number of faculty in these programs, even if it were sure to bring enrollment growth and yield revenue. The second possibility is that starting the state’s first vet school through a public-private partnership (no money down!) looks a lot better on your CV than saying that existing programs grew on your watch, even if the more boring accomplishment does more for the financial health of the university," he said, adding, "So my money is on a new vet school and another private investor to which the university has conceded some of its autonomy and to which we are financially obligated."

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