Gates Deal Coincides with Boom in Vet Schools

Premium content from Business First by Dan Miner , Reporter
Date: Friday, September 7, 2012, 6:00am EDT

Dan Miner
Reporter- Business First

If built, the $65 million veterinary college at Gates Circle would join a growing list of animal college developments and expansions across the country, a response to the tremendous demand from potential students.

And developer Chason Affinity Cos. will step into the active intersection of education and professional opportunity in animal care, where universal pressures such as student debt are meeting more specific ones, such as the increasing specialization of vets.

The academic world is struggling to balance multiple goals with limited resources, according to a study from The National Academy of Sciences.
“As a result, leaders in veterinary medicine have raised concerns about the health of the profession, the future of its graduates and the strength of its schools and colleges,” according to the study.

But that sentiment isn’t unanimous, and hasn’t stopped a boom in colleges, following a decades-long stagnation.

Western University of Health Sciences, in Pomona, Calif., broke the perception that vet schools were cost-prohibitive to build when it was established in 1998. The school started accepting veterinary students in 2003. For this fall’s class, 748 bachelor’s-degree-in-hand candidates applied, but only 105 were admitted.

“There is an ongoing need in our country for skilled veterinarians,” said Jeff Keating, Western University’s executive director of public affairs and marketing. “Give it some time. We’ll be needing more.”

Some industry studies predict marked expansion in the pet industry, and most are unanimous that there are regional needs in animal care and general needs in research and academia.

About 2,600 students are enrolled in 28 veterinary colleges each year, but there are more coming.

Lincoln Memorial University, in Harrogate, Tenn., is expected to open its new vet school in 2013 with an initial class of 100 students. AndMidwestern University, of Glendale, Ariz., will welcome its first class of 100 veterinary school students in 2014
Meanwhile, industry publications and individual schools show many are expanding. Cornell University, site of New York state’s only current veterinary college, is commencing a $22 million renovation that sustains its current 102-student class size and sets the stage for an increase to about 120 students per year.

Andrew Maccabe, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, said the growth may be a natural response to the demand now that colleges see it can be met less expensively than previously thought.

“We still have many more qualified applicants applying than are seats,” he said.

While the Chason proposal will include a hospital, the structures already exist at the 10-acre Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital site. Plans call for using 510,000 square feet of the campus and demolishing about half the buildings there.

The development window is expected to take 24 to 30 months, though a deal with an academic partner to run the college must still be formalized.

Mark Cushing, a consultant for the Chason endeavor, said he foresees no problem for the college in either demand from students or their post-graduate opportunities. The American population is growing and retiring baby-boomer vets will open up a host of opportunities in the coming years, he said.
“A small profession’s going to get a little bigger,” said Cushing, founding partner of the Animal Policy Group, which is affiliated with the Portland-based law firm where he’s a partner. “I think it will be healthy, good competition. There will be plenty of opportunity and kids can fulfill their passions.”

Cushing also said he doesn’t think there will be an issue in finding an academic partner for the endeavor, especially because of the economics of the renovation, a large pool of Buffalo-area undergraduate students and the urban surroundings.

“It is an unusually and uniquely attractive proposition,” he said.

The Chason proposal cites a statistic of nine applications for each vet college opening, while “many talented and qualified students” are getting their education overseas. It also cites the unemployment rate for vet school graduates as an “incredibly low 1.4 percent.”

At least one local college sees the spin-off potential. Chason representatives met with Medaille College officials July 12 for a preliminary discussion of the proposal.

“We are definitely eager to talk to Chason to see if there are ways that we can work together,” said John Crawford, vice president for college relations. “Anytime something like this happens, it’s always exciting to see that kind of growth and possibility.”

Medaille has about 300 students in its associate’s and bachelor’s degree vet tech programs. It has about 1,700 total undergraduates enrolled right now.
But not everyone is thrilled with the development. Charles McCausland, associate veterinarian at Wright’s Corners Animal Care Center in Lockport, said he doesn’t think the school is necessary.

McCausland initially struggled for acceptance into an American veterinary school and ended up getting his education in Dublin, Ireland. It was a decision he said was motivated partly by ancestry but also by his inability to get into a U.S. school, even after he got a master’s degree in cellular and molecular biology. But he said the selective, competitive nature of veterinary schooling is a good thing for the profession.

“I think investors see an opportunity to make a buck, if you will, on the fact that there is limited avenues for veterinary education,” he said. “In that sense, it minimizes the importance and quality of veterinary medicine.”