Do you dream of — literally — making people smile? Dentistry is a promising profession for many people, but figuring out how to pay for dental school can be a huge roadblock. While 17% of dental school graduates in 2019 didn’t carry any debt, those who did had an average debt of $292,169 by the time they finished school, according to the American Dental Education Association.
Depending on what dental school you attend, you could face a similar debt burden on the other side of your degree. Here are the best ways to pay for dental school while minimizing your total student loan balance.
Be realistic about the dental market
Even though becoming a dentist can be expensive, one of the positives about the career is that it pays well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay for dentists in 2019 was $159,200. The field is currently experiencing a growth rate of 7%, and the BLS projects continued growth because the population is aging and science is also making more connections between oral health and overall health.
Those stats might give you confidence about a dental career choice, but make sure you’re examining the total picture. Those numbers don’t tell you how annual salaries vary by location, which can make a big difference depending on where you want to live.
For example, in the Miami metro area, which has a higher cost of living than some rural areas, the mean annual salary for dentists in 2019 was $85,840. In North Dakota, with a lower cost of living, the mean annual wage was $264,330. That can equate to a huge difference in savings and how fast you can repay your dental school student loans.
How to pay for dental school
Even though dental school is costly, you have options when it comes to paying for it. Here are several ways to find the money you need to become a dentist.
Option 1: Federal loans
In most scenarios, the best loan option for dental school is federal loans. You’re more likely to get a lower interest rate with a federal student loan, and these loans offer a variety of repayment programs.
For example, Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) is something some dentists can qualify for if working at a nonprofit clinic or practice. After making qualifying payments for 10 years, borrowers are eligible for tax-free student loan forgiveness through PSLF. This program isn’t available for borrowers of private student loans.
Although you might need to pursue additional funding beyond federal student loans, you should always begin by maximizing your federal student loan limit. The aggregate limit for graduate students for both Unsubsidized and Subsidized student loans is $138,500. For some health programs, this limit can be extended, so reach out to your school’s financial aid office to see if you qualify.
Option 2: Private loans
Once you’ve borrowed as much as you can in federal loans, another option to consider is a private student loan. Private student loans generally have a higher interest rate than federal loans, but it’s an available funding option, if you need it.
Before taking out a private student loan, be sure you understand when payments are due. For example, is there a grace period while you’re enrolled in school or will you need to begin making payments immediately?
Make sure you understand how long the loan will last and whether there are any prepayment penalties. You might also want to inquire about any protections or insurance should you lose your job in the future.
Option 3: Employer-sponsored tuition reimbursement
An increasing number of employers are offering tuition reimbursement as a benefit. Often employers will pay up to the maximum allowable tax exemption by the federal government, which is $5,250 per year. While this might not seem like enough to pay for dental school in its entirety, it could be enough to help you finish some prerequisites or fulfill any general education requirements.
If you still need to improve your educational background before officially entering dental school, getting your current employer to cover this portion of your studies means you’ll have more money left over when it comes time to fully enroll. Every dollar counts, so don’t discount this option.
What about dental school scholarships?
Most dental scholarships won’t cover a large portion of your dental school bills, but even small scholarships can help with necessary expenses, like lab fees, books and rent while you’re a student.
Local dental interest groups offer many dental school scholarships and awards to dental students. One example is the Hispanic Dental Association Foundation’s dental scholarship, which offers $4,000 to eligible third- and fourth-year dental students.
To find dental school scholarships, start locally by researching dental associations in your area. You can also use the American Student Dental Association as a resource to help launch your search.
Consider federal and state tuition reimbursement programs
Some federal or state programs could help reimburse the cost of your tuition if you meet their criteria. Although these programs won’t help you find the upfront cash you need to pay for dental school, they could be a big part of how you’ll repay your dental school costs — which is why you should consider them now.
For example, the Indian Health Services loan repayment program offers up to $40,000 per year toward student loan repayment if you commit to a minimum of two years of service.
Some states also offer similar programs. For instance, the Colorado Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program will pay participants up to $90,000 for a three-year commitment in an underserved Colorado community.
You can begin your research into these types of programs through the American Dental Association.
Begin with the end in mind
The reality of dental school is that most graduates finish with a huge amount of debt, which can be difficult to repay without a high-paying job right away. Before racking up dental school debt, it’s helpful to have a repayment plan in mind and a strategy for the job opportunities you plan to pursue after graduating.
Our trained team members can help you understand the best ways to approach your debt and repayment through a pre-debt consultation. Based on your long-term career goals, our consultants can help you clearly define a dental school debt plan so you’re better prepared to be successful in the future.
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