When she was 5, Jennifer Simpson decided she wanted to be a veterinarian when she grew up. By middle school, she researched colleges and had her heart set on earning her doctorate from the University of Georgia.
Even though she intended to enter a field -- food-animal medicine -- desperately in need of vets, it still took her two years to get accepted into the university's veterinary college, one of only 28 veterinary schools in the United States. She was one of 96 students accepted out of 547 applicants.
For years, getting into vet school has been competitive. But with the demand exceeding supply for all types of vets -- from large-animal doctors in rural towns to federal employees working in the areas of food safety and bioterrorism -- some schools are taking steps to increase enrollment.
"We have a lot more demand for enrollment than we can provide," said Sheila Allen, associate dean for academic affairs at Georgia's veterinary college.
The college increased its enrollment last year from 86 to 96 students, the first increase since 1999, when enrollment grew by six students.
To take on the additional students, the school renovated classrooms and labs and added faculty and staff. For the college to admit more than 96 students, it would take some "pretty major capital expenditures. . . . Our classrooms and our labs are full," Allen said.
A few veterinary colleges have accepted a few more students in recent years. Some say more schools are needed, but it is financially prohibitive for many institutions, especially budget-strapped state universities, to build more labs and hire more faculty members.
"It's just not possible for the colleges to admit more, but some of them are working to expand their infrastructure," said Lawrence E. Heider, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. They need more faculty, labs, classrooms and teaching-hospital space, he said.
In the past three years, total enrollment at U.S. veterinary schools increased by 200 students, including 89 in the incoming class at Western University of Health Sciences in southern California -- the first new vet school to open in the United States in 20 years. The schools produce about 2,300 veterinarians each year.
"There are well-qualified applicants, and we do have a responsibility to provide a good education for citizens of this country, providing we have the capacity to do it and providing there are jobs when they graduate," Heider said. "Well, there are definitely jobs; there's no question there are jobs. We know we're in short supply of veterinarians today in many, many areas."
The shortage has happened because the number of veterinary graduates has not increased at the same rate as the nation's population, Heider said. His association estimates that there are 9 veterinary students per million Americans. If the enrollment numbers do not rise, the number of veterinary students per million Americans will drop to 6.7 by 2050. An estimated 965 more students per year are needed to maintain the current ratio.
Although many people may see vets only as small-animal doctors, the profession also needs specialists such as diagnostic pathologists -- especially amid the growing concern about agroterrorism and foreign animal diseases.
Other underserved areas are the armed forces, the Department of Agriculture and public health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The profession is not meeting some of the needs of society as it relates to public health, as it relates to food safety, biomedical research . . . and an increasing demand for specialists in private practice," said Ralph Richardson, dean of the Kansas State College of Veterinary Medicine.
"We're facing a manpower crisis," he said.
The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges is lobbying the federal government to help alleviate that crisis with funding to help build classrooms, research labs and administrative space.
Federal funds were provided 30 years ago to alleviate a national veterinary shortage, but that money was withdrawn in the 1980s.
"Now as we see the population increasing more rapidly and we know that we do not have enough graduates to fill the jobs that are available, it's time the federal government assist states with funds," Heider said.
Kansas State increased its incoming-class size from 100 to 108 students two years ago, taking a fifth of its applicants each year. Richardson believes it was the first increase in at least a decade.
The college had to remodel surgical laboratories and study areas and hire a few more instructors to accommodate the additional students.
Richardson said Kansas State will be able to enroll only 108 students until it adds new facilities or finds other ways to teach, possibly through co-op programs with veterinarians.
Richardson said most members of the general public probably are not as aware of the vet shortage as they are of shortages of workers in other professions, such as nursing.
"Vets can't find a graduate to hire, particularly in rural America," he said. "Those people are begging us to find somebody to go back into their communities."
Some colleges are trying to educate students as early as middle school about the various opportunities in the veterinary field. However, more than half of the 86 students who received their doctorates from the University of Georgia this spring went into small-animal practice.
When Simpson graduates in four years, she wants to work in a rural area, advising the federal government on herd health for cattle and swine. With concerns over mad cow and other animal diseases, she would also like to educate people in other countries about the proper care of livestock.
"There's a lot more to veterinary medicine than people realize," she said.
She does not believe she will have a hard time finding a job -- and the numbers show it. University of Georgia vet school graduates average 2.5 job offers.
"That's without trying very hard," Allen said.