Is Dental School Worth the Student Debt?
Pursuing a degree in dentistry can lead to a fulfilling and high-paying career as a health care professional, but it can also involve a large amount of dental school debt. So, given the high cost of tuition these days, is dental school worth it?
Let’s answer the following questions in order to decide whether taking out dental school loans is worth it for your particular case:
Question 1: Is dental school worth it? Debt vs. ROI
For many considering dental school, a dentist’s high earning potential is a big draw.
“I think the costs of dental school are worth the benefits — you can make a very good living of it,” says Dr. Jason Cabler, a dentist who’s been practicing for almost 30 years and oversees the personal finance blog Celebrating Financial Freedom.
The median pay for dentists is $163,220, according to 2022 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. New dental school graduates won’t be earning this much right away — but they will start with relatively high pay, with an average entry-level salary of $128,973, according to employment data company PayScale.
The biggest reasons to think twice about dental school, however, are the high costs of tuition and, for many students, dental school debt. On the other hand, you can look forward to big earnings in your future career.
Before deciding to attend dental school, research the costs and project your financial outcomes.
“Get serious about repaying [your debt] — dentistry can be a stressful profession, and debt will just add to that stress,” says Cabler.
Average dental school debt: $293,900
Then there’s the matter of paying for dental school. Students often have to borrow heavily to cover tuition, fees, equipment and supplies needed for their studies.
It’s not uncommon to take out student loans to cover living costs while attending dental school full time, either. As of 2022, the average dental school grad carried $293,900 in loans, while the average debt load for a graduate of the Class of 2022 was a slightly lower $286,200, according to the Education Data Initiative.
Here are some more stats on average dental school debt, according to the Education Data Initiative:
- 2 out of 3 dental school graduates took out student loans to fund their education, with just over 42% of grads borrowing more than $300,000.
- The average debt load at graduation peaked in 2020 at $318,500, but has since eased to $286,200 as noted above.
- The cheapest dental school for in-state residents is at Augusta University and costs $140,850 for the entire program.
- The cheapest dental school for out-of-state residents is offered by East Carolina University and totals $146,620 for the entire program.
Consider how long it will take to make back your investment
Between tuition, student debt principal and interest, the typical dental school graduate could potentially sink almost half a million dollars into dental school. But that investment also buys dental school graduates a spot in a high-paying profession. So how long does this investment take to start paying off?
The return on investment (ROI) will depend, of course, on how much a new dentist is paid. Dentists who graduate and are able to find high-paying jobs will see a return on their dental school investment much faster.
Let’s compare the typical entry-level dentist salary of approximately $129,000 with the average salary of a graduate with just a bachelor’s degree in chemistry — which according to PayScale is $78,000.
Assuming a 5% increase in earnings each year, here’s how the earnings compare (rounded to the nearest 10 dollars):
|Dentist salary||Bachelor's salary (Chemistry degree)||Difference||Total return|
As shown in the table above, it could take five years for a dentist’s increased earning potential (versus a typical science major with a B.S.) to offset their dental school debt. However, by that point, the investment in dental school is also generating roughly $62,000 extra in income each year.
Questions 2-6: How to figure out the value of dental school for you
You’ve now seen the typical dental school return on investment (ROI), but these numbers aren’t the whole picture. There are other factors to consider besides your bottom line — and a central concern should be managing dental school debt.
Here are five more questions you should consider when weighing your personal dental school ROI:
2. Will dentistry make me happy?
Dental school graduate Dr. Danny Masters, says that the decision to go to dental school had more to do with his dream of becoming a dentist than earning a high income.
“I am confident that you can earn a lot of money as a dentist, but because it is so expensive, that shouldn’t be the only factor,” Masters says. “From a purely financial perspective, I think there are lots of other jobs you can get or create and earn six figures without investing half a million.”
Cabler agrees that dentistry won’t be the right career for everyone. For those considering dental school, he suggests getting an idea of what the job is like.
“I made friends with my dentist, for instance, and went in and hung out with him in his practice as much as I could to see what it is all about,” he says. “I had a good idea of what I was walking into, but some people don’t.”
3. Can I limit dental school debt?
You should also consider whether you can limit your dental school debt. If you can reduce the amount of debt you take on, it can have a huge effect on your finances for at least 10 years after graduation.
Masters ended up graduating with $570,000 in combined graduate and dental school debt — a high balance that he says was the result of not living on a budget while in dental school. He wishes he’d done more to limit his dental school debt and have some suggestions for how those attending can do so:
- Get used to living on a budget. “Start now by living on a budget and get used to that lifestyle until your loans are paid off,” Masters says.
- Downsize your expenses. Consider switching to a cheaper apartment or even moving back in with your parents while in school.
- Choose a low-cost dental school. “Sometimes you don’t have many options in terms of what dental schools you are accepted to,” Masters says. “But aim for the best schools with the smallest price tag,” both when applying for and choosing your dental school. For instance, in-state public dental schools may be less costly than private dental schools.
- Borrow only what you need. Student loans are not free money, so resist the temptation to treat them that way. Only take out student loans for the amounts you need to cover tuition and bare necessities, even if you could borrow more.
- Get someone else to pay for dental school. Apply for every scholarship you can find. Consider participating in programs like the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) or the armed forces that offer tuition assistance for a work commitment.
4. Is student loan forgiveness really an option?
In addition to limiting dental school debt, students should also make a plan to repay student loans — don’t assume you can have your student loans forgiven.
“Many classmates would say things in passing like, ‘Eh, we’ll just apply for student loan forgiveness,’” Masters recalls. “But [student loan forgiveness] really is a complicated decision and fairly uncharted territory.”
Programs offering student loan forgiveness for dentists have specific rules for eligibility. You can see a full list of these programs in our guide to student loan forgiveness for dentists.
Qualifying for student loan forgiveness might require a dentist to move — often to a rural area — for lower pay. Deciding whether to trade a high income for forgiveness isn’t a cut-and-dry decision.
5. What are my dental school debt repayment options?
Look into other options to keep dental school debt affordable:
- Income-driven repayment plans can lower your monthly payments to within an affordable percentage of your income. These are only available for federal student loans.
- Private student loans often have higher interest rates than what the federal government offers, but you might be able to find something that can beat the government’s grad PLUS loans.
- Refinancing dental school loans can be another option to lower your interest rates and monthly payments after dental school, mainly if you have private student loans and can’t access income-driven repayment. For example, SoFi has a special refinancing offer for medical and dental residents.
6. Can I aggressively pay down student debt?
The above options can be helpful in managing student debt. But for dentists looking to maximize their dental school ROI, working to pay down student debt fast will be one of the best ways to do so. For each student loan you pay off, you free up cash flow and reduce the amount of interest you pay over time.
Maximizing your earning potential can help you generate extra income to put toward student loans, too. For instance, you might choose to pursue high-paying dental specialties. You might also work toward owning your own practice: Private practitioners often earn higher incomes and have more growth opportunities than dentists working with a dental service organization.
With a dentist’s high pay, it’ll still be a challenge — but a doable one.
“When you get out of school, you’re going to be making a good bit of money,” Cabler says. “But I recommend that for the first two or three years after school, live like you’re still in dental school and put every extra penny towards student loans.”
If this is your goal, refinancing dental school debt can be a smart strategy for any private student debt you have. If you can get lower interest rates, more of your payments will go toward actually lowering your principal and paying off the loan.
Question 7: How can you get low-interest dental school loans?
If you’ve decided that dental school is worth it, you might need student loans to cover your education costs. Before borrowing, make sure to max out your options for grants and scholarships.
As long as you don’t have an adverse credit history (or can apply with an endorser), you can borrow a PLUS loan up to the cost of attendance of your school. But if you have good credit (or a creditworthy cosigner), it’s worth exploring your options for private student loans to see if you could get a better rate.
Take advantage of online prequalification checks to compare rates without dinging your credit. By taking some time to shop around, you can find dental school loans with decent rates and flexible repayment terms.