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Companies With Education Benefits: VCA Animal Hospitals

As of fall 2019, Americans have a collective $1.5 trillion worth of student loan debt. Over 10 percent of this debt is over 90 days delinquent or in default, although this number may be twice as high once loans that are currently outside of the repayment process are removed from consideration. This includes loans that are currently in a grace period or have been deferred—about half of all loans. With an average monthly student loan payment of $393, it’s no surprise that employees may hesitate to further their education or even struggle to pay existing student loan bills.

Starbucks made headlines when they announced their partnership with Arizona State University, extending complete reimbursement for a bachelor’s degree in any subject to all part-time and full-time employees. Since this announcement, an entire industry dedicated to matching colleges and universities with companies interested in providing benefits has emerged. This includes companies like Guild Education, edX, StraighterLine, and more. The number of companies that offer educational benefits is growing and shows no sign of stopping.

Over half of U.S. companies now provide tuition assistance for students pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree, while 8 percent of companies provide student loan repayment assistance. While these numbers may seem modest, they represent a growing trend in education seen as part of an employee’s overall benefits. These programs may come with strings attached, including limits on total reimbursement or certain educational requirements (i.e., coverage for only related degree programs). Yet companies are increasingly seeing these benefits as an important part of attracting and retaining talented employees.

In February 2020, VCA Animal Hospitals joined the growing number of companies providing educational benefits. With over 1,000 small veterinary hospitals in the U.S., Canada, and Japan, VCA employs more than 4,500 veterinarians—600 of which are board-certified specialists in oncology, cardiology, surgery, or emergency and critical care.

Interview with Dr. Anthony Guerino, VCA Heartland Regional Director

Anthony Guerino

To learn more about the education benefits offered by VCA Animal Hospitals, spoke with Dr. Anthony Guerino, Regional Director for VCA Heartland, which covers 60 clinics and eight specialty hospitals throughout the midwest and northeast regions of the United States.

Recognizing a shortage in emergency medicine and critical care veterinarians, VCA partnered with Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) in Harrogate, Tennessee to offer current veterinary students the following benefits:

  • $35,000 in tuition assistance
  • $5,000 living expenses stipend
  • A 16-week clinical rotation in student’s 4th year
  • A three-year position in an ER position with VCA

In addition to tuition assistance, VCA also provides critical on-the-job training and guaranteed employment which allows students to maximize their learning.

Interview Questions

[] How did VCA come to develop this partnership with LMU?

[Dr. Anthony Guerino] The VCA Heartland staff sat down with them [LMU] a year ago to see what we could do. We are in a much bigger region with hospitals in Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—right in their neighborhood. So we knocked on their door and wanted to see how we could help them and their students.

[] What problems are veterinary students facing?

[Dr. Anthony Guerino] The biggest problem for students is getting enough experience and high debt prices. This is one of the biggest concerns in veterinary medicine—there are students with $200,000 or even $300,000 in debt. There are some really big ideas out there, and some people are doing tuition reimbursement each month.

[] Is tuition reimbursement enough?

[Dr. Anthony Guerino] It’s all well and good, but doesn’t do enough. Looking at VCA’s biggest needs, our focus is emergency and critical care medicine. We have a shortage across the country. Many people stay in veterinary medicine for six to eight years after graduation and then have families. It’s the exception and not the rule for those who stay in the occupation for the rest of their lives.

[] What solutions did VCA and LMU come up with?

[Dr. Anthony Guerino] So, three of us went to LMU to sit down and talk, and we had a great conversation with the dean and associate deans. We talked about how we can go ahead and support students in getting into difficult specialties and decreasing student debt. VCA can also sponsor them, help them get into residency, guarantee them employment, and help them get into the highest paying job.

Emergency medicine pays an additional $20,000 to $30,000 annually plus there is the potential for students to learn more. This is the easiest thing we can do now that’s a win for students, a win for LMU, and a win for us.

Students also get 12 weeks of clinic time and 12 weeks of elective time through this initiative. Most of the programs out there to train emergency medicine doctors—you’re looking for training and direct observation for an additional six to nine months post-graduation. So cutting into that time through this program means less time is needed to get trained after graduation. We can get them operating and learning more quickly.

[] Do you have plans to expand this program?

[Dr. Anthony Guerino] There’s tons of excitement on both LMU’s and VCA’s side. We are doing a lot to make this a really big success. If we can make this work, this will be a big benefit for us. We are starting with four students from a whole lot of different backgrounds. This is something we are really interested and excited about. We selected them in November, so the first one is starting this program at the end of summer 2020. Both LMU and VCA will monitor and evaluate program success.

[] How does this approach differ from traditional approaches to veterinary medicine?

[Dr. Anthony Guerino] There are two approaches in veterinary medicine. Most colleges and universities have a teaching hospital and use that model. LMU provides an alternative learning environment with hands-on training and allows flexibility. So, this program will work really well in universities that also work that way.

All of us are invested in making this a successful program. We’re excited to do something that benefits students, LMU, and VCA. This is probably the most practical approach to dealing with the cost of education, as well as the only one we could do that makes sense. So, if other universities are interested, let us know. We want to help out the next generation of students—it’s a win-win situation for us.

[] What advice do you have for students looking to enter veterinary medicine?

[Dr. Anthony Guerino] Veterinary medicine has been my home since I was 14 years old. It’s always been the place where I felt the most comfortable. I get to work with animals and people, as well as engage in problem-solving and science. I get to be a counselor to people. I can’t think of anything more fulfilling.

If you’re interested, go do it. There are so many avenues for veterinarians, including research, government work, science—we’ve even had a couple of astronauts! There are so many ways for it to be fulfilling.

After graduating veterinary school, the first thing to do is find a place with a lot of mentorship. This is the starting block for the rest of your life. So work hard, pay your debts—that’s all there is. Part of my job is to help the next generation.

Bree Nicolello

Bree Nicolello is an urban planner and freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. She has worked on land use and housing policy issues throughout the Pacific Northwest. She previously led Run Oregon Run, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Oregonians run for office and apply to boards and commissions. When not writing, she is lovingly tending to her cast iron pans.