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Is dental school worth it?

Dental school students train on mannequins
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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 Education Association (ADEA), the average dental school debt for the class of 2020 was $304,824, 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, consider all the costs 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 ADEA, the average dental school debt for recent graduates is $304,824. This is much higher than the average graduate school debt, which pins at $91,148 for federal borrowers.

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 cost of dental school in the first year, including tuition and fees, as $55,395 for residents and $72,219 for nonresidents in the 2019-20 school year.

To keep costs low, consider a public dental school instead of a private college. The ADA’s report found that the average cost of dental school in public programs is $41,711 for the first year, compared with $75,161 for first-year private dental programs. 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.

What are the average interest rates on dental school loans?

The average interest rate on dental school loans depends on which type of student loan you 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’re updated once a year based on larger economic trends. With that said, the rate you receive when you take out your loan will be the rate you pay throughout that loan’s repayment. 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
2021-22 3.73% 5.28% 6.28%
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%

Private student loan interest rates

In most cases, it’s best to stick with federal student loans, since they give you the option to pursue income-driven repayment plans, forbearance periods and forgiveness options. 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 depend on the lender and your credit situation. As of September 2021, private student loan interest rates range from roughly 1 percent to just under 13 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 Direct Subsidized 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.

Lost earnings while in dental school

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. Think about the debt you will accrue combined with the amount of income you will lose and determine whether these factors are worth the high dental salary in the end.

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 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. 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 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

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.

What is the average salary of a dentist?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for a dentist is $180,830. That’s not what you can expect from the get-go, however. The New York State Department of Labor found that a dentist starting salary is closer to $100,000.

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 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 while working full time for qualifying government 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 to have 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.

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 your current and future finances.

As you research the cost of attending dental school, graduate school loan rates and your projected salary, 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