Animal house

A new school at Rowan University should help alleviate a shortage of veterinarians

Gabrielle Saulsbery//January 17, 2022

Animal house

A new school at Rowan University should help alleviate a shortage of veterinarians

Gabrielle Saulsbery//January 17, 2022

Matthew Edson, the founding dean of New Jersey’s first veterinary school. -ROWAN UNIVERSITY

Pet owners struggling to find care for their furry friends and veterinary offices seeking help to provide it can rejoice: Rowan University will establish New Jersey’s first veterinary school, adding to just 33 such institutions in the country.

The school will offer a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree as well as additional degrees and training programs to shape the future of animal health care in the state. The school will be developed with $75 million in funding approved by the Legislature in November and located in Sewell on the campus of Rowan College of South Jersey-Gloucester.

An inaugural class of 60 is projected to start in 2025, pending approval from the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education. Burlington County veterinarian Dr. Matthew Edson has been appointed founding dean.

“Launching New Jersey’s first school of veterinary medicine at Rowan University is just the latest in a series of strides we have made in expanding and improving the quality of medical education and research over the past decade,” said then-Senate President Steve Sweeney at a ceremony held in December to announce the school’s establishment. “With this investment, we will be able to keep our best and brightest veterinary students in New Jersey, and we will attract aspiring veterinarians from other states to study here as well.”

Edson may not be the typical pick for a dean. While he’s taught several science classes as an adjunct professor and was a consultant to Rowan early on in its plans to establish the school, he’s more a businessman than an academic. The practice he started a decade or so ago is thriving, and for the past four years he’s been voted “Best Veterinarian” in Burlington County by readers of Burlington County Times.

“Making sure these students are marketable is important to me … I have a real goal to make sure these students get an education and can enter practice,” he said.

Edson grew up on a farm and lived there through his undergraduate education at Rutgers University. His upbringing, first filled with pets like dogs and ducks and then with livestock like dairy goats, shaped his love for animals. While he initially focused his practice on large animals such as horses, cows, and goats, it eventually shifted to include and then be dominated by smaller household pets. His patients now are a mix, with 85% of his visits going to cats and dogs and 15% to large animals.

His love for animals continues in his personal life. On the farm where he lives—right next to the one he where he grew up, and down the street from where he grows acres of hay—he’s got “a little bit of everything,” including Boris, his rescue camel.

Fitting his goal to make students marketable, Rowan School of Veterinary Medicine will have a hybrid experiential learning model. An on-site veterinary teaching hospital will offer services to pets in South Jersey and equip students for life after graduation. They will also gain experience at external clinical sites, where they’ll work side-by-side with faculty and practicing veterinarians.

Once they’re educated, their services will be necessary: Approximately 75 million pets in the U.S. may not have access to necessary veterinary care by 2030, in part due to a shortage of veterinarians, according to a September 2020 Banfield Pet Hospital report. Preliminary data from the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association’s ongoing business survey showed last June that nearly half (47.5%) of respondents said they need to hire more full-time veterinarians, nearly one-third (32%) said they need to hire more part-time veterinarians, and 58% say they needed to hire more full-time technicians.

The oft-reported pandemic pet boom brought animals into 12.6 million more American households between March 2020 and January 2021, according to a COVID-19 Pulse Study by the American Pet Products Association.

In the prior year, the USDA reported that more than 500 U.S. counties were already underserved by veterinarians. Those shortages were in mostly rural areas in 44 states. The pandemic didn’t cause the shortage of veterinarians, but it certainly didn’t help.

The situation according to Edson, the immediate past president of the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association, is that most practices need help—much like employers in other sectors.

“[Veterinary offices] are certainly looking for vets and techs and support staff. They’re busy; and sometimes that leads to staff members getting burnt out. That leads to some leaving the field, and then we lose those people from the pool.

“The other part is since general practices are so busy, [pet owners] are heading to the emergency rooms for things they wouldn’t go there for before, like an ear infection. So some of the referral centers are paying people a lot of money to do relief shifts, so [veterinarians] might decide it’s more financially [lucrative] to just bounce around and do relief shifts,” Edson explained.

Given the cost of veterinary school, you can’t blame them. At Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., tuition for a four-year DVM costs $217,332 for non-residents. By comparison, in-state students pay $146,102. At Edson’s alma mater Kansas State University, today’s out-of-state students pay $206,043 for the same education that in-staters pay just $91,184.

The financial burden adds to the appeal of a veterinary school right in New Jersey.

“I was a New Jersey guy who wanted to go to an New Jersey vet school and I couldn’t. I had a great time in Kansas, but I had to pay out of state tuition. I’m hoping to give New Jersey students a chance to avoid that amount of [student debt],” Edson said.

In addition, if students go to school in New Jersey, the hope is that they might stick around and practice here.

“These people could be kept in New Jersey after graduation, too, because they may stay where they went to school otherwise,” he said.