Dental school tuition continues to rise across the board, and no one in the United States pays more for school than dental students do. Take a look at any school in the nation and see what their most expensive academic program is. If they have one, then you will almost certainly find that it is their dental school with few exceptions.
Take my school, Midwestern University in Glendale Arizona, as an example. Here is a copy of the tuition table found on the school’s official website:
Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine
College of Pharmacy – Glendale
College of Dental Medicine – Arizona
Arizona College of Optometry
Physician Assistant Studies
Biomedical Sciences, Master of Arts
Biomedical Sciences, Master of Biomedical Science
Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia Practice
Speech Language Pathology
Our program costs almost $8,000 more each year than the next most expensive program which is medical school. Add to that the large number of fees that we have in the school of dental medicine as listed below:
- Technology Fee – First Year Only – $1,500
- Endodontic Torque Control Motor Fee-First Year Only-$985
- Supply Fee – All Years – $4,700
- Instrument Rental Fee – All Years – $2,168
- Simulation Laboratory and Clinic Fee – All Years – $5,641
The fees add up to $14,994 on top of our $71,191 in tuition for our first year. The annual fees are $12,509 after the first year. But as high as our tuition and fees are, we are still not the most expensive dental school in the nation! That honor goes to USC for in-state residents and MUSC for out-of-state residents.
Also, we get an extraordinary clinical education at Midwestern. I personally feel that helps to offset the cost of our tuition when other schools charge more while offering less to their students.
This post isn’t meant to elicit sympathy for decisions we dental students made with our eyes wide open. I knew the cost of attendance before I committed to a career in dentistry. And I know that many dentists think that my fellow students and I are insane to pay so much just to become dentists, me especially as a nontraditional student who started school eight years after most dental students do.
I am writing this article simply to draw attention to the fact that the current growth in tuition rates is unsustainable. At a time when 100 million Americans already say that they can’t afford to go to the dentist, endless tuition hikes will ultimately be passed on to our patients. We have a real crisis on our hands and it is simply unacceptable that 1/3 of Americans are priced out of dental care.
So, what do I plan to do about it?
I don’t pretend to have all of the answers. This is a complex problem that extends even beyond the field of dentistry and into the worlds of politics and economics. But I do believe that the sooner we ask the right questions, the sooner someone will come along with the right answers. Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves:
- Why is tuition rising at a rate that is consistently higher than inflation and even more than medical costs or cost of living?
- How much should dental students reasonably pay for a dental degree when dentist income has been stagnant since the early 2000s?
- I was told by one lender that dental students have one of the highest student loan repayment rates of any profession at around 99%. But when will dental school become so expensive that even dentists are unable to pay back their loans?
- How much interest is too much? Currently, Direct / Unsubsidized loans for graduate professional students are 5.31% and Direct PLUS Loans are 6.31% according to the government. As long as 99% of us repay our loans, there is little incentive to reduce interest rates.
- Are we graduating too many dentists as some suggest? Or are we just really just making dentistry too expensive for patients and seeing our demand drop as we increase our supply?
- Will we inevitably see a repeat of the dental school crisis in the 1980s?
- Will dentistry become a tiered profession where high-debt graduates are forced to associate for self-employed low-debt graduates?
No one likes increased dental school tuition
In defense of dental school deans and rising tuition rates, they don’t want to see their tuition increase anymore than their students do. A study published in the Journal of Dental Education asked all 63 dental school deans in the United States at that time what their perceptions of rising tuition rates were.
Of the 63 deans surveyed, 42 responded. They said that emerging clinical technologies, taxes, and a reduction in government funding and private donations are the main culprits in rising tuition and fees. On the one hand, deans are pressured to keep up with current trends in dentistry and ensure that their students get the best possible education. On the other hand, they have less money to do it with, so they have to charge students more tuition and fees.
Is dentistry worth the cost of tuition?
Dentistry still has a good Return on Investment (ROI) in most cases. However, if incomes remain stagnant, cost of living increases, inflation continues to rise, and tuition becomes even more expensive than it is now, then yes—we will be in danger of seeing a poor ROI for a dental degree. Given that cost of living always increases, as does inflation, the only two variables that can keep this profession viable would be either reductions in tuition, increases in salary, or some combination of both.
The good news is that dentistry is still a worthwhile financial investment for most. The bad news is that we are headed in the wrong direction. I don’t know where the tipping point will be, but surely a degree that costs more than $500,000 and only nets you $160,000 annually is probably not a great financial investment. Sadly, some schools are swiftly approaching the $500,000 mark.
You shouldn’t be all about the Benjamins
It can be hard to remember why you got into this profession in the first place. Especially if you struggle to pay your staff or to make ends meet. I am only a dental student, so I can’t speak to the plight of the modern dentist (I would love to hear some comments on this article from dentists). Though I have heard many of their gripes and complaints both in person and online.
Your decision to become a dentist has to extend well beyond financial motivations. You may enter this field and do very well. More likely, you will earn an average income and be saddled with average debt. That means that you will be earning $160,000 while paying off around $260,000 in debt.
To put that into real terms, I will use a couple of calculators. First, we calculate your take-home income assuming no state tax and single filing status. Earning $160,000 you would take home around $4,500 every two weeks.
Next, we calculate your student loan repayment rate assuming a loan amount of $260,000 that is paid back over 10 years with a 6% interest rate. Your monthly repayment would be around $2,900.
Assume that you will be average
With an average salary, and an average student debt load, you could expect to take home about $6,100 every month after taxes and student loan repayment. Of course, this assumes a lot of things, and most dentists will have to pay state income tax. But if you thought you would be taking home a cool $200,000 as a dentist, then it may be humbling to learn that you are more likely going to take home $72,000 in net income earning the average dentist’s salary.
That isn’t bad at all, given that the average American makes around $48,000 in gross income annually. But you probably won’t become wealthy earning the average dentist’s salary. If that is your goal, then you should probably seek another profession.
Your mileage may vary
The circumstances you face are as unique as you are and will be determined by: how many kids you have, when you buy a home and for how much, the kind of practice agreement you enter into, your ability to save, etc. Your success in this profession rests largely upon the decisions you make with a little bit of luck on the side.
But, the thing that no one can take away from you is your desire to help people lead better lives. If you enter the field with the mindset that you would do the same job with less income than dentists earn now, then you will probably be happy. This is not to say that current dentists should be happy with less. I am saying that future dentists will likely have to expect less and do more for it.
Go into this field with your eyes wide open. You will spend a lot of money, it will require a lot of time and energy, but in the end it is worth it. Don’t just become a dentist because US News & World Report says that this is the #1 job in the United States. The measure of a profession’s ability to satisfy you will depend entirely upon you and your expectations, not what a journalist says in a newspaper.