Lincoln Memorial University, in Tennessee, plans to open a veterinary college in 2012, which would make it just the 29th university in the country to have one. The university also plans to be the first to offer a six-year option for students to earn a bachelor's degree and a D.V.M. -- a process that typically takes eight years.
Veterinary colleges are few and far between, and mostly limited to larger land-grant universities like Ohio State University and the University of Tennessee. Lincoln Memorial is located in Harrogate, in the Cumberland Gap region of the Appalachian Mountains, close to borders with Kentucky and Virginia. Many farmers there need veterinarians trained to treat livestock, on which many residents depend on for their livelihood.
Ray Stowers, LMU's vice president for health sciences, says animals in Cumberland Gap also help spread disease, affecting the entire population of the region -- not just those who make their living raising livestock. "When you improve the health of the animal population, it obviously affects the human population," Stowers said.
Stowers says the new College of Veterinary and Comparative Medicine will be modeled after lower-cost programs that he calls "community-based" -- emphasizing work in the field with local practitioners. Students will learn on the job in one of 30 local veterinary offices. Unlike most veterinary colleges, LMU's will not have a veterinary hospital; students will use existing facilities.
The program will offer some students the chance to earn a bachelor's degree and veterinary degree in six years, instead of the typical eight. Officials say it would cut down tuition costs, an incentive that could entice talented students to the region. (Last month the University of Texas System announced a plan  to shave a year off of the normal eight years to earn a bachelor's degree and an M.D.) Skeptics say most students simply aren't ready for the job six years after high school.
Mike Chaddock, a veterinarian and the deputy director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, said it is "incredibly hard and students are rare" who can win admission to vet school based on only two years of an undergraduate program. "You're competing with people with bachelor's and master's degrees."
Chaddock said most students simply aren't ready for the job after six years. For an accelerated program to succeed, it would have to be very selective in finding students with the maturity and communication skills they need to be a veterinarian. "I'm not saying it can't work," he said, "But you have to be careful about selection."
LMU's accelerated program, modeled after veterinary medicine curriculums in most European universities, would allow qualified students to follow a six-year curriculum from the beginning of their time at the university. Peter Eyre, the executive dean of the new college, said students in the program would have fewer liberal arts course requirements. He said the program would still provide ample instruction on writing and other communication skills, although he acknowledged that the curriculum would lack some balance that could provide a more well-rounded education.
"We have to weigh the pros against the cons," Eyre said. "Right now, the cost of veterinary school is just too high."
Tuition hasn't been set yet, but Eyre said it would most likely be in line with out-of-state tuition at veterinary schools at state universities -- around $40,000 a year.
Stowers said he expects other veterinary schools to follow suit if LMU's accelerated program is successful. "This is the way of the future," he said.