The Painful Reality of Dental School Costs

Common question: How much did dental school cost you?
Long story, short: $524,556.21

While I would hope the number above is uniquely astronomical, the reality is that many new dentists are faced with the same seemingly unsurmountable burdens of student loan debt. Between tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, transportation, personal expenses, medical insurance and dental instruments, students may be looking at cost of attendance (COA) numbers well beyond $100K per year. What is unfortunate for new and recent graduates like myself is that the debt burden for today’s dentist is far greater than those just five or ten years ago.

According to the American Dental Education Association, average educational debt for all indebted dental school graduates in the Class of 2017 was $287,331. Over 35% of indebted dental school graduates in the Class of 2017 reported debt in excess of $300,000.

How is this possible?

Let’s take a look at some of the numbers with a school like New York University College of Dentistry, a private dental school with tuition comparable to most other private and non-resident public schools.

According to their website estimates, here is the breakdown for tuition, fees and expenses:
D1:       $123,429
D2:       $127,443
D3:       $129,135
D4:       $124,159
Total:   $504,166

If we were to take a school with in-state tuition like University of California, Los Angeles School of Dentistry as an example:
D1:       $95,325
D2:       $88,143
D3:       $78,171
D4:       $66,924
Total:   $328,563
*Non-residents would pay an additional $9,398 annually for a total of $37,592 more.

While there are dental schools which may cost less or more annually, these examples are well within the realm of reality/expectation for reported costs of attendance. (Note: A quick online search will yield cost of attendance results for nearly any dental school).

Additional Cost Considerations

While the total expenses may already seem outrageous, these numbers are without much of the added costs. Most importantly, cost of loan interest accumulation. This is where understanding the type of loans is crucial.

For example:

Let’s assume, of a dental school loan for the first year, $50,000 is taken as a direct unsubsidized loan at a 7% interest rate. Over a single year the interest accrued would be $3500 or $9.59 every single day. Additionally, unpaid interest accrues further. In just the four years for dental school, that initial $50,000 loan could translate to over $66,000.

Most federal direct unsubsidized loans accrue at around a 7% interest rate while in school. Applying these principals to each loan each year would amount to tens of thousands of dollars in additional costs which may not have been considered with initial estimates.

Dental school graduates are in a particularly difficult situation.

Many individuals borrow money for graduate/doctorate school; however, dentists often find themselves in more challenging financial circumstances for a few reasons. The first is that dental school costs can be enormous (as outlined above). The second is that most new dentists simply do not command the same starting salaries that many new physicians do. According to U.S. News and World Report the average salary of a dentist is 2016 was $173,860 compared to $201,840 for physicians. The third is that in many cases, in order to make money, dentists have to take on EVEN MORE debt as is the case with individuals hoping to open offices. The struggle is definitely real.

What can be done about it?

Unfortunately for myself, I hadn’t given loan debt much thought prior to my current financial predicament. But if I were to give advice to future prospective dentists, I would suggest they pay close attention to the costs associated with their choice of dental education. I would research the estimated tuition costs of each prospective school (readily available online). If possible, I would take advantage of in-state/resident public dental schools or look into scholarship opportunities from service commitment programs such as the National Health Services Corps or armed forces.

At the end of the day, I would be realistic about what I believe dental school would cost. I would account for additional expenses maybe not considered in estimates from dental schools such as loan interest. I would also be more conservative with my borrowing by creating a comfortable budget and taking financial aid only for what I found to be necessary. If possible, I would make regular payments on loan interest for direct unsubsidized and direct PLUS loans to help limit interest accrual over the course of schooling. Ultimately, I would weigh all the risks and benefits in order to make an informed decision.

How much did dental school cost you? What steps did you take to mitigate costs? I would love to hear your stories.

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