Bulletin of Dental Education

A Rounded View of Student Debt

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By Nicole Fauteux

“We’re number 1!” joked Robert Hann at the start of his talk. Mr. Hann, who will soon be graduating from the  University of Southern California Ostrow School of Dentistry  (USC), appeared to be boasting, but in actuality, the frontrunner status to which he alluded is a dubious distinction. USC is the most expensive dental school in North America.

Mr. Hann was one of three panelists who spoke at the 2013 ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition in Seattle about “Current Professional Students and Their Educational Debt.” The session, which was organized by the ADEA Council of Deans; the ADEA Council of Students, Residents, and Fellows; and the ADEA Section on Orthodontics, showcased several complementary perspectives on a problem that has generated considerable anxiety in our community and beyond.

Mr. Hann said he doesn’t regret choosing the most expensive dental school in the country—in fact, he praised its exceptional curriculum—but he said that choice has affected his future plans. He entered school with the intent of practicing general dentistry. Instead, he will become an orthodontist, and looking to the future he says, “My five- and 10-year plans are IBR,” referring to the income-based loan repayment plan through which he will make good on his educational debt.

The headlines are full of talk about the unprecedented rise in student debt and the burden it places on the current generation. The numbers are particularly startling for dental students who have seen the cost of attendance rise nearly 50% since 2000. Dental student loan debt has grown even faster—66% in the last 10 years—and the average educational debt for 2012 dental school graduates who had borrowed was just shy of $222,000.

Attorney Heather Jarvis brought personal and professional perspectives to the issue. As a former staffer on the House Education Committee, she helped craft policies related to student debt relief. She has been paying her own student loans for the past 15 years, will continue to do so for another 15, and is about to take out a college loan for her daughter. She explained the benefits to new professionals of federal programs such as the  Income-Based Repayment (IBR) plan and its most recent cousin,  Pay As You Earn  (PAYE). These options benefit those who borrow the most because they forgive any debt not repaid after 20 to 25 years, but Ms. Jarvis cautioned against counting on these programs in the future.

“Pay As You Earn has started to cause ripples,” she warns. She fears that support for programs that benefits high earning professionals may not survive in the current political and economic climate.

Cecile Feldman, D.M.D., M.B.A., Dean of the  University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, New Jersey Dental School, brought to the panel her perspective as an administrator steeped in the topic. She chaired the ADEA Presidential Task Force on the Cost of Higher Education and Student Borrowing, whose report is now available online.

Dr. Feldman expressed her surprise at how little research had been done on how debt influences career decisions and the decision to apply to dental school. She also shared several graphs that made visible the rising cost of attendance.

“No matter how you look at this data,” she says, “it’s a troubling trend because costs are going up rapidly.”

During the audience Q and A, yet another perspective emerged, which put the justifiable concern over student debt in, well, perspective. A student at the  University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Dental Medicine  remarked that he found the PAYE option attractive and said he was not concerned about his student debt even though he came from a disadvantaged background. Ms. Jarvis replied that she was also the first person in her family to go to college and felt her investment in education had been well worth it.

“You can’t improve your financial options without education,” she reminds the audience. Indeed, students continue to pursue dentistry despite the cost of dental education. The  U.S. Department of Labor  projects a 21% increase in dentists by 2020. For those who are ready to take the plunge, ADEA has developed a number of  resources  for dental students and dental school financial aid administrators to help students make informed decisions about financing their dental educations.

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