Student debt is a primary concern across the veterinary profession. While there is no simple fix for this complex issue, Congress has several opportunities to take actions that could help alleviate the burden of student debt for veterinarians. Dr. Kent McClure, chief government relations officer for the AVMA, joined us to discuss the outlook for higher education legislation in the 115th Congress.
What are some of the key legislative opportunities to address student debt in the coming year?
Because student loans are a complex financial issue, there are several different avenues through which Congress could address student debt. The most likely routes are through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act next year or through budget reconciliation. Additionally, federal lawmakers have introduced more than 100 bills related to student loans and financial aid. There also are opportunities to address student debt through tax reform.
What are the best outcomes for the veterinary profession with these pieces of legislation?
The AVMA has a key set of higher education principles that we’re looking to see implemented as Congress moves forward with higher education legislation, and each principle aims to reduce the student debt burden facing veterinarians. A few examples of what we’d like to see Congress do are eliminate origination fees, lower interest rates, maintain or expand the federal student loan borrowing limits, and increase awareness of income-driven repayment plans. You can read all of our principles in our Higher Education Act issue brief.
As far as stand-alone legislation is concerned, one of our key priorities is passing the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP) Enhancement Act. This legislation would change the tax code to expand loan repayment opportunities for food animal and public health veterinarians who practice in federally-designated shortage areas. The principles of this legislation could potentially be implemented through tax reform as well.
It seems there are a lot of legislative opportunities to improve the student loan environment for veterinarians. Is there any legislation that could worsen student debt prospects for veterinarians?
Definitely. There are a few proposals that the AVMA opposes, and one of the biggest threats is the reduction or elimination of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Lawmakers have been eyeing this program for cuts for several years now, and the effort gained momentum this fall. Unfortunately, there are several different avenues through which this loan forgiveness could be cut. The appropriations process poses a big danger to this program, as lawmakers could choose to reduce or eliminate its funding. The program also could be at risk during budget reconciliation and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. There is also a stand-alone bill that would cap loan repayment under the program at $57,500.
The good news is that Congress is being very responsive to the concerns of our members around this issue. They’ve received thousands of letters from the veterinary community, and we’re making sure they’re hearing the stories of veterinarians who are counting on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Congress really values hearing from our veterinary constituents, and the efforts of the AVMA and our members are making an effective case for this program.
What can veterinarians and veterinary students do to help?
As I mentioned, members of Congress are very responsive to their constituents, and they are particularly interested in what veterinarians have to say on student loan issues. I encourage veterinarians and veterinary students to write or call their legislators about student loan issues that impact them. The AVMA’s Congressional Advocacy Network website makes it very easy to look up contact information for your lawmakers and quickly send them editable, pre-written letters on key issues, so it’s a great resource to use for advocacy.
AVMA also provides opportunities for members who want to become more involved in the political process. Students can spend a month in Washington as government relations externs, and veterinarians at any stage in their career can apply to serve as an AVMA congressional fellow, providing scientific counsel to a congressional office. I also encourage members to consider joining our Political Action Committee, which is a terrific way to amplify our advocacy efforts. You can visit avma.org/advocacy/getinvolved to learn more about these opportunities.