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Average Dental School Debt

Average Dental School Debt
Rebecca Safier
Rebecca SafierUpdated August 8, 2023
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Earning your dental degree can lead to a fulfilling and highly compensated career, but you may have to take on a significant amount of debt along the way. In fact, the average dental school graduate owes $293,900, according to the Education Data Initiative. Before enrolling in dental school, it’s important to consider how much you’ll have to borrow in student loans and how you’ll manage your finances after graduation. 

What Is the Average Debt for Dental School?

Among dental school graduates who borrow student loans, the average debt load is well into three-figure territory. According to the American Dental Education Association (ADEA), the average dental school debt among Class of 2020 borrowers was $304,824. The Education Data Initiative has slightly lower figures for the Class of 2022. According to this source, the average debt load for graduates was $293,900. If we estimate a debt load of $300,000, a borrower would have to make monthly payments of $3,483.25 to pay it back on a standard 10-year plan, assuming an interest rate of 7%. Over 10 years, that borrower would pay $117,991 in interest, bringing their total loan costs up to $417,991. 

Factors That Affect the Final Cost

There are a variety of factors that will impact your dental school costs. Here are some worth considering if you’re looking to keep costs down. 
  • Living expenses. The amount you spend on food, transportation, and other living expenses will have a big impact on your overall dental school costs. If you can save money by living with roommates, opting for groceries over restaurants, or walking or bicycling instead of owning a car, you could reduce your overall costs. 
  • Location. Where your dental school is located will also have a major impact on your daily expenses. A dental school in a city with a high cost of living, for instance, will incur higher living expenses than one in a rural or suburban location. 
  • Type of school. A private dental school will probably cost you more than a public, in-state dental school. 
  • Scholarships and grants. If you can earn scholarships and grants to cover dental school costs, you may not have to borrow as much in student loans to cover your program. 
If you’re looking to keep costs down, try to come up with a budget for yourself and follow it to the letter. Avoid using student loans on unnecessary expenses so you don’t take on more debt than you need to pay for dental school. Recommended: 15 Budgeting Tips for Beginners

Tuition Is Rising

One factor that’s not in your control is the cost of dental school tuition, which has been increasing by an average of 7% annually over the past four decades. In fact, dental school is 16 times more expensive than it was 41 years ago. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), the average tuition and fees of dental school are $53,242 for in-state students in their first year and $71,411 for out-of-state students in their first year. If you stretch out that price tag over four years, the total price could be $212,968 for residents and $285,644 for nonresidents. Given this hefty price tag, it’s no wonder that many dental school students have to turn to student loans to cover costs. 

How to Pay for Dental School

When it comes to paying for dental school, you have a few options: 
  • Savings. If you have any savings that you can put toward school, perhaps from a 529 education plan, you can reduce the amount you’ll need to borrow in loans. 
  • Scholarships and grants. Both of these awards are types of gift aid that you don’t have to pay back. Applying for scholarships and grants could help make your dental school costs more manageable. You can also look for grants to help pay off student loans.
  • Income from a part-time job. If you have time to work part-time as you’re studying for your degree, you could use your earnings toward your living expenses. 
  • Federal student loans. To cover a gap in funding, federal student loans from the Department of Education are an option. You can borrow Direct Unsubsidized Loans or Graduate PLUS Loans, both of which come with fixed interest rates and are eligible for a variety of repayment plans. 
  • Private student loans. You can also borrow privately from a bank, credit union, or online lender. Rates and terms will vary by lender, with the best rates typically going to borrowers with the strongest credit. If you don’t have good credit on your own, you might need to apply with a cosigner. 

Average Salary of Dentist Degrees

While dental school can come with a significant price tag, earning your dental degree can lead to a high salary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay for dentists in 2021 was $163,220. Your salary will depend on various factors, including where you work, whether you open your own private practice, and how many years you’ve been practicing in the field. 

Managing Your Finances as a Dental School Graduate

Once you’ve graduated dental school, it’s time to start paying back your student loans. Most loans offer a six-month grace period, after which you’ll enter full repayment. If you borrowed federal student loans, it’s worth exploring your repayment options, which include the standard 10-year plan, graduated repayment, extended repayment, and income-based repayment. Income-driven repayment may be your best bet if you need to reduce your monthly payments and cap them at a percentage of your discretionary income. Plus, income-driven repayment can end in loan forgiveness after 20 or 25 years. Explore options for loan forgiveness, too, such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness plan. Some states and private organizations also offer student loan repayment assistance, often in return for working in a shortage area for a few years. As for how to pay off student loans that you borrowed from a private lender, keep in mind that private student loans don’t typically come with the same range of repayment options as federal student loans do. However, you could explore refinancing your private debt for better rates. Reducing your interest rate could make your monthly payments more affordable and save you money over the life of your loans. Plus, you have the option of extending your loan term if you need more time to pay off your debt. Keep in mind that extending the loan term will reduce your monthly payment, but it will increase the overall interest you pay over the life of the loan.If you can afford extra payments, you may think about which student loan to pay off first. Targeting the loans with the highest interest rates can help you save the most on interest over the life of the loan. 

The Takeaway

Dental school can come with a hefty price tag, but you should eventually get a return on your investment thanks to high average salaries of dentists. At the same time, you’ll miss out on income-earning opportunities during your four years of dental school and may have to take on student loan debt along the way.Think carefully about how much you can afford to borrow to earn your degree. If you do take on debt, explore various strategies for paying it off after you graduate. Refinancing your loans could be a savvy move, but keep in mind that refinancing federal student loans means you’ll lose access to federal repayment plans and forgiveness programs. If you’re interested in refinancing your student loans for better rates, Lantern can help. Find out more about how Lantern can help you refinance student loans from leading lenders.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I reduce my dental school debt?
What are my options for student loan repayment?
How can I save for retirement while paying off student loans?
What should I do if I can't make my student loan payments?
What is the average salary of a dentist degree?
Photo credit: iStock/izusek

About the Author

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier has nearly a decade of experience writing about personal finance. Formerly a senior writer with LendingTree and Student Loan Hero, she specializes in student loans, financial aid, and personal loans. She is certified as a student loan counselor with the National Association of Certified Credit Counselors (NACCC).
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