Dentistry students know that dental school puts them on the path toward high earnings, but first, they have to pay for one of the most expensive degrees in the United States.

With the average dental school student graduating with $293,900 in debt, it can be hard to feel like you’ll come out ahead. It’s important to consider whether your degree will offer a strong return on investment.

Questions to decide if dental school is worth it

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to whether dental school is worth it. The decision to become a dentist is a very personal one, and it’s important to consider all of the benefits and drawbacks of going through dental school to get there.

If you’re considering dental school, it’s important to understand the financial costs, the rigorous coursework and your career options.

What is the average dental school debt?

The average dental school debt for recent graduates who took out student loans is $293,900.

Of course, it’s possible to get through school with a below-average debt load, but the high costs of dental school are hard to avoid. The American Dental Association (ADA) lists the average tuition and fees of dental school in the first year as $56,698 for residents and $74,866 for nonresidents in the 2021-22 school year.

To keep costs low, consider a public dental school instead of a private college. The ADA’s report found that the difference in first-year tuition and fees between public and private colleges was $36,654.

Take time to research your options so you can find the school that will give you the most bang for your buck. You can also look for opportunities to receive scholarships and grants to help you get through school.

How long does it take to repay dental school loans?

How long you pay off your dental school debt depends on various factors. Private student loans let you choose your repayment term up front, with options usually ranging from five to 20 years. If you have private student loans and can’t afford the monthly payments based on your current repayment schedule, refinancing your loans is the only way to get a longer term.

With federal student loans, the standard repayment plan is 10 years. However, the average dental school debt may make it difficult to keep up with payments. Fortunately, the federal student loan program offers options that last up to 30 years.

How much do dentists make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for a dentist is $172,290. That’s not what you can expect from the get-go, however. Based on more than 200 reported salaries, Payscale lists the average salary for dentists with less than one year of experience at $126,962.

This will make it more difficult at the beginning of your career to keep up with your student loan payments without a longer repayment term or an income-driven repayment plan. But over time, your salary will increase along with your experience.

How long does it take to become a dentist?

Traditional dental school programs are four years long, which means that it can take up to eight years to become a dentist if you include your bachelor’s degree. However, some schools offer accelerated three-year programs, which save you some time.

When deciding if dental school is right for you, consider the earnings you may miss out on. While attending school, you are missing out on income you could be making if you were not in school, which could influence whether dental school is worth it for you.

Becoming a dentist can lead to a high paycheck eventually, but be sure that you can handle the loss of income that will come while you attend school. Consider the debt you will accrue and the income you will lose. Determine whether these factors are worth the high dental salary in the end.

What is the job market like for new dentists?

Employment for new dentists is expected to grow by 6 percent by 2031, according to BLS, which is about average for all occupations. The federal agency expects that roughly 5,100 new job openings will be available yearly.

That said, the ADA data shows that there were 6,665 dental school graduates in 2021, which means that there may not be jobs available for all new dentists.

Keep in mind, too, that different markets may have different needs. It’s a good idea to research some areas where you want to settle down to get an idea of what the job market looks like.

Are dentists happy?

Researchers in a 2020 study found that dentists have a moderate to high level of satisfaction in their jobs. In particular, they enjoy good relationships with their staff and patients and a professional environment. However, points of dissatisfaction include personal time, stress, income and practice management.

Dentists typically work seven to 10 hours a day, and for the most part, having structured office hours can keep your work-life balance fairly predictable. However, occasional emergencies can add some uncertainty to your schedule.

On top of helping patients, which can be a source of satisfaction for dentists, you’ll also need to spend time managing the finances of the practice and dealing with insurance companies, which can be a significant stressor, especially if you don’t have a background in business.

If you’re interested in learning more about what the day in the life of a dentist looks like and whether you’ll enjoy the career, consider interviewing dentists in your area in person or via online forums.

How to reduce dental school debt

Dentists have plenty of opportunities to pay down their dental school debt after they’ve graduated. It’s even possible to get help from outside sources.

Income-driven repayment

Borrowers with federal student loans may lower their student loan payments through income-driven repayment plans. With income-driven repayment plans, like Pay As You Earn, Revised Pay As You Earn, Income-Based Repayment and Income-Contingent Repayment, your monthly payment will be limited to a percentage of your discretionary income. If you have a balance left over at the end of your repayment period, it’ll be forgiven.

Student loan forgiveness

If you have federal student loans, you may qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The program will discharge your debt after you make 120 qualifying monthly payments on an income-driven repayment plan while working full time for qualifying government agencies or not-for-profit organizations.

Student loan repayment assistance

While not considered forgiveness, since it’s not coming from the Department of Education, student loan repayment assistance is available from select government agencies, including the Armed Forces.

The ADEA maintains a list of student loan repayment programs for dentists on its website, organized by state and federal agency.

Student loan refinancing

You typically need federal student loans to qualify for forgiveness or repayment assistance. But if you’re not eligible for these programs for other reasons, or if you took out private student loans, you may consider refinancing your student loans instead.

Student loan refinancing is the process of replacing one or more existing student loans with a new one through a private lender. Depending on your finances and credit, as well as the rates on your current debt, student loan refinance rates can be lower than what you’re paying now, which can save you money.

You can also use refinancing as a way to get a longer repayment term, which can make your monthly payment more affordable.

The bottom line

Dentistry is a highly lucrative field, but the financial burden of becoming a dentist is high. If you like the idea of helping people keep their teeth healthy and don’t mind facing debt in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, dental school can be a good path to take.

Take steps to keep the cost of your education low, such as applying for grants or scholarships, and make sure your debt is manageable by using strategies such as income-driven repayment and working toward loan forgiveness.