Lyon College dental, vet schools planning on 2025 opening; $94 million economic labor impact expected

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 2,734 views 

A new veterinary and dental school will be located in Heifer International's current headquarters.

The state’s first dental and veterinary schools hope to seat their first classes of about 100 students each in the late summer or early fall of 2025, Lyon College President Dr. Melissa Taverner told the Rotary Club of Little Rock Tuesday (May 2).

Taverner a year ago announced plans to open the Lyon College Institute of Health Sciences at the current Heifer International headquarters in downtown Little Rock’s East Village. Heifer International sold the 94,000-square-foot building to OneHealth Education Group, a partner with Batesville-based Lyon College, and will lease space in the building.

The two schools are still working through the accreditation process. The 2,000-page application for the dental school was expected to be submitted to the Commission on Dental Accreditation May 2 or May 3 after two years of work.

The initial accreditation request for the veterinary school was submitted to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Council on Education in January. Taverner said the school expects a consultative site visit in the fall that will help finalize the curricula.

She said the initial class size will be discussed with accreditors, but she expects about 100 students in each of the two schools will start having classes in the late summer or early fall of 2025. The second cohorts may be a little larger.

Taverner said the recruiting cycle takes about a year, which means it would start in the summer or fall of 2024. That would give the schools about a year to prepare the admissions processes.

OneHealth Founding Partner Merritt Dake said shortages of education opportunities exist in both fields nationwide. He said Arkansas is helping pay the out-of-state tuitions of about 60 dental and 60 veterinary students attending school elsewhere. Only three or four students return to practice.

Arkansas ranked 50th in the United States – ahead of only Alabama – in the number of dentists per capita with 41.82 per 100,000 residents in 2019, according to the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine. The state is last in the number of veterinarians with 14.2 per 100,000 people, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers published at veterinarians.org. The two said Arkansas ranks below Puerto Rico in that area.

Having schools in Arkansas “will actually drive a lot of students to learn here, stay here, practice here,” Dake said.

Taverner and Dake said the schools are being designed according to a distributive model that will reduce the amount of time students spend in the classroom and increase the time they spend having direct clinical experiences. Students will go to school nine semesters and get out in three years instead of four. One of the goals is for tuition costs to be below the country’s median costs.

Studies in the basic sciences will take place at the schools. Students will be vetted for skills and clinical experiences and then work with partners in practice for 4-6 week periods.

“We want to work in partnership with these clinical placements because that’s where a lot of the real meat of the experience is going to come from,” Taverner said. “And the plan is that when people graduate from vet school and dental school, they will have seen so many more different procedures than they would have if they’d gone to a traditional education of four years. They’re going to be much, much better prepared once they are licensed to immediately be effective in the field.”

Taverner said Lyon College has been reaching out to a variety of practices not just in Arkansas but in other states to serve students coming from elsewhere.

The veterinary school will include a focus on large animals. The two said a facility won’t be constructed in Little Rock, but the school is working on establishing relationships with corporations and academic institutions.

OneHealth has set up a funding mechanism and secured funding from investors that will allow Lyon to raise money with zero debt related to that funding. Dake noted that the Lyon College Institute of Health Sciences has already secured partnerships with UAMS and Delta Dental of Arkansas and will be announcing other partnerships over the next six months. Taverner said the corporate partnerships will help the Institute with expertise, resources, and outfitting the schools cost-effectively.

An economic impact study found the schools will have a $94 million total economic impact on the state related to labor alone.

Work has begun to transform the 28-acre Heifer International site into a dental-veterinary campus. Dake said school officials are working through the final legal documents with the city, Heifer International, the Clinton organization, and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, whose new headquarters will be on campus.

“It’s been a lot of work, a lot of complexity, but frankly, it’s been a pretty easy process with everyone,” he said. “Everyone’s kind of working towards that same goal.”

Dake said Heifer International recently started remodeling the main building’s third and fourth floors. The existing building will serve primarily as faculty offices and Heifer’s headquarters. A student auditorium next will be added. Another building will house student services. The south side of the campus will host the dental and veterinary schools. Living facilities also will be constructed. Dake said about 600 people will live in or around the campus.

Last May, Hilary Haddigan, chief of mission effectiveness at Heifer International, said the agency’s 165 employees in Little Rock grew accustomed to working remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the hunger-fighting organization no longer needed as much space. Heifer also operates the Heifer Ranch in Perryville.