Ashley Hall remembers clicking “yes” on the loan application and, inexplicably, laughing.

Maybe it’s because the number seemed so surreal. Or because no one else in her family had done this before. But there she was, borrowing nearly $75,000. For her first year of veterinary school at the University of Minnesota.

Even now, two years later, it’s hard for her to believe. By the time she graduates in 2016, she’ll owe more than $300,000.

Hall, a 28-year-old from Georgia, never planned it this way.

But like many ambitious students, she’s been swept up in a tsunami of debt that only seems to grow more ominous. “I will be paying off my loans for the rest of my life,” Hall says with a wry smile. “I probably will die with a loan debt.”

Today, the typical college student graduates with $29,400 in student loans.

But that pales in comparison to what Hall and other graduate and professional students are borrowing to get an education. At the U veterinary school, one of the most expensive in the country, the average student debt in 2013 soared to $188,000.

Those kinds of numbers are stoking national anxiety that student debt has gotten so out of hand that it threatens to drag down an entire generation.

Hall, who has a husband and 6-year-old son, is understandably obsessed with the subject. She wavers between outright despair (“What was I thinking?”) and youthful optimism (“It’ll all work out”).

But she can’t help wondering: Is a mountain of debt a reasonable price to pay to follow one’s dream?

Love for animals builds passion, bills

Shazam, a 20-year-old quarter horse, is in his “recovery room” at the Leatherdale Equine Center on the university’s St. Paul campus. Hall, the veterinarian in training, dips her shoes into a sterilizing bath as she trails Dr. Jenny Brown into the treatment stall to check on her patient.

Nearly a month after brain surgery, Shazam looks a little battered and listless. One eye is temporarily sewn shut, and IV bags hang from an overhead girder. But today, he’s going home.

Hall is transfixed, soaking up the details of his medical treatment.

This, after all, is what she’s come for, why she’s been willing to borrow the equivalent of “a mortgage on a mansion,” as she puts it, to get her degree. “I love working with animals,” she says simply. “It’s my passion.”

Once Shazam gets the all-clear to leave, Hall watches sympathetically as his owner tries to coax the skittish horse into the trailer for the ride home.

“That’s the hard part of being a veterinarian,” Hall says. “It’s your job to be able to read the animal and see what they’re not telling you.”

 

 

From aimless teen to driven student

Growing up in Georgia, Hall recalls, becoming a veterinarian wasn’t on her radar; she barely expected to finish high school.

She was raised by her grandparents in a small house on the outskirts of Atlanta. Both her mother and grandmother dropped out of school and cleaned houses for a ­living.

With little encouragement at home, Hall says, she was a rather aimless C-student by age 15.

Then she met a teenage boy who convinced her she was selling herself short.

“She was failing a lot of her classes, and didn’t care, when I met her,” said Alistair Hall, the teenage boy who eventually became her husband.

It was he, his wife says, who planted the idea that she could go to college. “He kind of inspired me to see myself in a different light,” she said. “I kind of just flipped a switch.”

Once she started applying herself, she found that schoolwork came easily.

“Before I knew it, I was taking AP Spanish,” she said. She raised her GPA from 1.9 to 3.4, enough to qualify for Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship, funded by the state lottery, to pay for her college education.

When she realized what she was capable of, her husband said, “it was like a drug. She just wanted to be the best.” She became an honors student at Georgia Southern University.

One day, while in college, she arranged to shadow a veterinarian at a small-animal clinic. “Within two seconds of being there, I knew I was exactly where I wanted to be,” she said.

She made up her mind to apply to vet school.

But there were obstacles. And money, at first, was the least of her worries.

Newly engaged at the start of her senior year, she discovered she was pregnant with their son, Devin. So she put off the application process for a year.

Then, despite graduating from college cum laude, she was rejected by vet schools two years in a row.

Undeterred, she redoubled her efforts, working as a veterinary assistant to build up her résumé, and waiting tables for extra money. The third year, she got in almost everywhere she applied.

The University of Minnesota was by far her most expensive option. For out-of-state students, tuition and fees are $58,000, more than triple what she’d pay in Georgia.

But Minnesota was the only vet school in an urban area, with plenty of job opportunities for her husband, an engineer. Back in Georgia, during the recession, he had found himself cleaning houses to earn money.

In Minnesota, he got a job offer from an engineering firm right away; and as young parents, they loved the Minneapolis school system. “It just felt like the right thing to do,” Hall said. “We figured it would all work out.”

They learned that, under federal rules, she could borrow nearly $75,000 in government-subsidized loans to cover tuition and living expenses that first year. They decided to take out the ­maximum.

Looking back, she said, they didn’t fully appreciate what that meant.

Now, depending on her repayment options, it could cost her up to $2,400 a month for 20 years to pay for her four years of training.

“I was thinking, ‘This is just what you do, it will be fine,’ ” she said. “You don’t process the debt right away. All you can see is the big goal. The dream.”

 

 

Economic outlook clouds for vet students

As a rule of thumb, experts say, students should not borrow more than they reasonably expect to earn, in annual salary, after graduation.

By that measure, veterinary students are taking a big leap of faith.

The average starting salary was $65,000 in 2012, while the average student debt was $152,000, according to a survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association. To make matters worse, salaries were on the decline, while debt was steadily climbing.

In the past 10 years, tuition and fees have surged 80 percent at the U veterinary school, to $34,000 a year, for in-state students. Out-of-state students have seen a 70 percent jump.

It’s part of a nationwide trend that everyone finds troubling.

“This is something that we’ve been worried about a lot,” said Dr. Trevor Ames, dean of the U’s veterinary school. When he went to vet school in the 1970s, he said, “I was paying $700 a year. I was able to work summer jobs and make enough money to pay for [it].”

He blames dropping state support, among other things, for the jump in tuition.

“Clearly, there’s been a societal shift in pushing more and more of the educational costs onto the students,” he said.

Some students have family or other resources to cushion the blow.

Dan Wingert, a third-year student from Plainview, Minn., said $20,000 in scholarships has helped him keep his debt “pretty manageable.” So has in-state tuition. “Compared to out-of-state students, I am better off,” he said.

But scholarships are a rarity in professional schools such as veterinary medicine, U officials say.

Most students have two choices: cash or credit.

As a result, some are almost dreading graduation day, when the bills come due.

“It’s just this giant storm cloud that’s always hovering over your head,” said Rachel Rice, a U veterinary student from North Carolina who is facing more than $300,000 in loans. “It hasn’t started raining yet, because technically I’m not paying them back yet. But it’s there and it’s blotting out the sun.”

 

 

Enough is enough,

she tells leaders

Last year, Ashley Hall decided that she and her classmates had been silent too long. She started telling her story to anyone who would listen: state legislators, U administrators, the Board of Regents.

She readily admits that she took on the loans willingly and made her own choices. Her message, though, is that it can’t go on this way.

She argues that society needs veterinarians, not just to care for pets but to safeguard the food supply and public health. So the heavy cost of training them should not fall on students alone.

“We’re just accepting ridiculous amounts of debt, and it’s just part of the norm,” she said. The danger, she said, is that only the rich will be able to enter the profession.

Dr. Andrew Maccabe, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, agrees.

“Yes, it is alarming,” he said. “The short answer is, no, it cannot continue at these rates.”

In June, for the first time in memory, the Board of Regents voted to freeze tuition at the U’s veterinary school. Many credit Hall for putting a face on the issue. “I’m really proud of her,” said Brittany Edwards, past president of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, who encouraged Hall’s efforts. “It was only her persistence that made the difference.” And just last week, President Eric Kaler asked the state Legislature for money to freeze tuition for all Minnesota residents, including veterinary students, for two more years.

To Hall, the freeze is not “a solution but rather a start.”

Last month, she signed up for another package of student loans: almost $100,000 for the next 12 months, including a required summer session.

She says she loves veterinary school and has no regrets.

Someday, degree in hand, she hopes to work in a “mixed practice” caring for horses as well as pets. But she can’t help comparing herself to her late grandmother, who had less than a high-school education.

“She was so wise with money. She didn’t make a lot, but she still had a nice house at the end of the day,” Hall said.

“I’m here in professional school, and yes, I will have a job. … But I’m carrying more debt than she ever carried,” she said. “I feel like, in a lot of ways, I’m financially way worse off than she ever was. That’s not how I pictured things going.”