Is dental school worth it?


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Dental school can be a stepping stone on a path toward a lucrative career, but the cost is high. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), the average dental school debt is $292,159, making it one of the most expensive degrees you can get.

Fortunately, dentists also have a high ceiling when it comes to salaries. Before you decide to apply for dental school, though, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into and whether the return on investment is worth it.

What is the average dental school debt?

So, how much does it cost to become a dentist? Based on data compiled by the ADA, the average dental school debt is $292,159, which is up from $55,000 in 1990. Of course, it’s possible to get through school with a below-average debt load, but 64 percent of dental school graduates report having more than $200,000 in student loans.

The cost of dental school itself can’t be avoided — the ADA lists the average cost of dental school in the first year, including tuition and fees, as $53,002 for residents and $69,905 for non-residents. But there are ways to limit your costs and reduce your reliance on student debt.

For starters, consider a public dental school instead of a private college. According to the ADA, the average cost of dental school in public programs is $39,662 for the first year, compared with $72,271 for private dental programs. Take your 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.

What are the average interest rates on dental school loans?

It’s difficult to peg an average rate for all dental school loans, simply because there are several different types of student loans from which you can choose.

With federal student loans, for instance, rates are standardized, meaning you know exactly what rate you’re getting before you apply. Private loans, on the other hand, can come with a wide range of interest rates based on the lender and your credit situation.

Federal student loan interest rates

While federal student loan interest rates are standardized, they will change over time. More specifically, members of Congress update federal student loan rates once a year based on a number of factors. Here’s a history of rates by loan program.

School Year Direct Loans for Undergraduate Students Direct Loans for Graduate and Professional Students Direct PLUS Loans for Parents and Graduate and Professional Students
2020-21 2.75% 4.3% 5.3%
2019-20 4.53% 6.08% 7.08%
2018-19 5.05% 6.6% 7.6%
2017-18 4.45% 6% 7%
2016-17 3.76% 5.31% 6.31%
2015-16 4.29% 5.84% 6.84%

As you can see, interest rates for the 2020-21 school year are much lower than the previous year — in fact, they’re some of the lowest rates on record. The sharp drop is due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken a heavy toll on the U.S. economy.

Private student loan interest rates

In many cases, it’s best to stick with federal student loans. But you may have met the limit on how much you can borrow from the government, or your credit situation might be good enough to get better terms from a private lender.

In this case, your interest rates can vary depending on the lender and your credit situation. As of December 2020, private student loan interest rates range from roughly 1 percent to just under 15 percent.

Private student loans can also come with either fixed or variable interest rates. Variable rates typically start lower, making them more appealing. But over time, that rate can increase, potentially costing you more money. Fixed rates will remain the same over the life of your loan, making them the lower-risk choice.

Interest capitalization

Regardless of whether you choose federal or private student loans, most of them accrue interest while you’re in school. The only exception to this rule is Subsidized Direct Loans, which are available to undergraduate students who exhibit financial need.

Once you’re out of school and your grace period is over, your lender will capitalize the interest on your account, adding it to the balance and increasing how much you owe — and also the amount on which your future interest payments will be based.

How long does it take to repay dental school loans?

How long it takes you to pay off your dental school debt depends on a variety of factors. Private student loans let you choose your repayment term upfront, with options usually ranging from five to 25 years. If you have private student loans and can’t afford the monthly payments based on your current repayment schedule, the only option to get a longer term is to refinance your loans with a different lender.

With federal student loans, the standard repayment plan is 10 years. With such a high average dental school debt, though, it may be extremely difficult to keep up with payments with that repayment schedule. Fortunately, the federal student loan program offers options that last up to 30 years.

Repayment Plan Repayment Term
Consolidation Loan Up to 30 years
Extended Up to 25 years
Pay as You Earn 20 years
Revised Pay as You Earn Up to 25 years
Income-Based Up to 25 years
Income-Contingent 25 years

Also, with income-driven repayment plans, 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 — though note that the canceled amount will be considered income for tax purposes.

What is the average salary of a dentist?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for a dentist is $178,260. That’s not what you can expect from the get-go, however. The New York State Department of Labor pegs a dentist starting salary at $108,850.

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, as you gain more experience, your salary will increase along with it.

So, is being a dentist worth it? The answer depends on how dedicated you are to reducing your reliance on debt, how quickly you can grow your career and salary and your passion for the field.

How do I reduce my 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.

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. At the end of the program, the forgiven amount won’t be considered taxable.

Additionally, you must work full time while making those payments for a government agency — federal, state, local or tribal — or eligible not-for-profit organization. Get the full details on benefits and requirements from the U.S. Department of Education website.

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 ADA 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 to have federal student loans to qualify for forgiveness or repayment assistance. But if you’re not eligible for these programs for other reasons, 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.

Is dental school worth it?

The decision to become a dentist is a very personal one, but it’s important to consider all of the benefits and drawbacks of going through dental school to get there. One of the most important factors to consider is the financial side.

As you research the cost of attending dental school, graduate school loan rates and the salary you can expect upon graduation and throughout your career, you’ll have a better understanding of whether the return on investment is high enough to be worth it for you.

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Written by
Ben Luthi
Contributing writer
Ben Luthi is a personal finance and travel writer who loves helping people learn how to live life more fully. His work has appeared in several publications, including U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, Yahoo! Finance and more.
Edited by
Student loans editor