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Why Dental School is Worth It Despite the Debt

A 2022 U.S. News ranking of the 100 best jobs of 2022 places dentistry among just outside of the top 10 jobs in America. This is the first time in several years it has fallen out of the top 10. Is it time to panic about the profession of dentistry?

The report ranks occupations on a list of seven different factors, including the average dentist salary earnings, but none address the cost of dental education and the student loan debt that comes with it. For new dentists, your dental school dean probably sold you a bill of goods.

Please tell us what schools told you about loans in the comments. I'd love to compare your stories and so would the other folks hanging out here. There are all kinds of BS cliches floating around dental schools these days. I'm here to challenge them.

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Why Dental School Debt Makes Success Harder in Dentistry

So many people ask me “Is dental school worth it?” Yes, dentistry can still be a lucrative and wise financial decision. And the average dentist's salary isn't bad at all.

However, for many new dentists, the margin of error is smaller than it has ever been before. For many dental school graduates with over $400,000 in negative net worth, the only way to make dentistry worth it is through practice ownership.

Yes, dentists hire me to make a comprehensive plan to save money paying back their student loans. Before I get accused of trying to sensationalize the dental school loan problem for profit, realize that the worse this problem gets, the more clients Student Loan Planner® stands to have.

I do this job because I love helping dentists save money and increase the return on investment for their education. I want to add a dose of realism to the profession and speak up against widely held public perception.

Paying Back Dental School Debt Would Take Drastic Measures for Most

No, you will not repay your dental school loans in five to seven years, despite the average dentist salary. Your education was most likely not a wise financial investment compared to alternative paths available to someone smart enough to get into a dental program.

UNLESS… if you buy a $800,000 practice in an area with a 5000 to 1 population to dentist ratio, hire consultants to grow the practice, and work your tail off with smart financial planners and CPA's around you, then forget what I said about dentistry not being a good decision. It could be one of the best careers out there. 

The problem is that you have to be comfortable living with a large amount of debt and a high monthly payment, which leaves a narrower path to success than back when dental school cost $5,000 a year. If you're wondering if dental school is worth it, you must consider these costs.

It's the Delta Dental, DSO, and debt age of dentistry

The economics of the profession are not the best they've ever been. If only I had a dollar for each time a client told me that their dean spouted that off in a speech.

Delta Dental and other PPO insurance plans have crushed average incomes. A typical dentist made over $200,000 not too long ago.

That number is closer to $140,000 today, according to Payscale data. The difference? Fees are way lower than they used to be because your average dental office accepts a half dozen different providers.

Over the next decade, corporate Dental Support Organizations will replace thousands of small business owners with employees and retain all the profits.

I have a different rating system for the folks over at US News and the thousands of young dentists and soon-to-be dentists graduating in the next several years from public dental school or from private dental schools.

Being a dentist is the number 1 job in America for debt. Keep reading to the end though, because it doesn't have to be.

Dentistry education debt is crushing in magnitude

In my flat fee student loan consulting practice, I help professionals from all different backgrounds. I've consulted with surgeons, primary care docs, veterinarians, psychologists, nurses, teachers, lawyers, chiropractors, pharmacists, business owners, dentists, and more. 

Dental student loans are on another level and the high costs are crushing. Dentistry debt stands out because it is consistently the highest in absolute dollars of any profession I see. Check out this video below to see an example of how I help a dentist save money on their school loans.

YouTube video

The average dental school debt of the 354 dentists I've consulted with is $379,742. Their average salary has been about $150,000 (U.S. News lists the average dentist salary at $155,600).

If I restricted that to dentists either currently in school or who graduated in the past couple of years, the average debt would be closer to $450,000 and the average income would be closer to $120,000.

Read also: Published Cost Estimates of Dental School Are Totally Wrong

Dental education debt is also almost impossible relative to salary

So say you use my average debt and income figures for recently graduated dentists.

A typical debt to income ratio for dental education debt is therefore $450,000/$120,000=3.75. There is almost no scenario where an individual can repay this level of debt, no matter the average dentist salary.

The only path to full repayment in this scenario is owning a practice in an area where most dentists probably don't want to live. If you disagree, that's cool. Let's debate it in the comments.

There is a wide distribution around these typical numbers of course. Many dentists coming out of public programs have between $250,000 and $300,000 in student loans and are on a path to repay everything within 10 to 15 years.

However, some others from private schools owe well over $500,000. I've even consulted with some specialists graduating from residency programs who owe close to $1 million for their education.

Can you find some success stories of dentists who've moved to a rural wealthy enclave in the middle of nowhere making $400,000 a year three years out of school? Sure. I've worked with several of them. We refinanced their student loans and saved them tens of thousands in interest.

However, even these ‘unicorn' dentists would've probably been even more successful as non-dentist business owners. You also can't make an argument in favor of a profession based on how well the 0.1% are doing.

You have to look at the vast majority of cases and look at the typical result. For the thousands of dentists doomed to toil in associate positions for most of their career, that result isn't pretty.

Without the government income-driven repayment programs to fall back on for federal student loans, I estimate that 50% of today's graduating dentists would default on their loans.

That's not a stable occupation with great pay. It's one where you have an anvil hanging over your head that you're glad hasn't dropped yet. Ironically, the only way to get out of this situation is by taking on even more debt to become your own boss as a practice owner.

Read also: Five Ways Dentists Can Protect Themselves Against Student Loans

Dentistry is the Most Expensive of Any Professional or Graduate Program 

Finishing medical school is cheaper than completing a dental program. Many people even get scholarships. If you have a high balance, you can use Public Service Loan Forgiveness to pay a fraction of what you borrowed.

Veterinary school is unbelievably expensive, but dental programs and the cost of tuition still wins as the number 1 most expensive professional program. I've never heard of a vet med student being asked to spend $5,000 for a DVD with books on it. The total cost of a dental education is unmatched. 

Some of the dentists I've spoken to tell me they've seen way worse stewardship of their money in school than that.

Law school, psychology PhD programs, pharmacy school, and other graduate degree programs do not hold a candle to the absolute magnitude of the cost of becoming a dentist.

Yes, owing $200,000 and not being able to find a job as a lawyer sucks, but at least it's just $200,000.

Once you owe over $400,000 for your dental education, you're not going to be able to afford to have another “find yourself” period of life, despite the average dentist salary, especially if you have private student loans. So if you're wondering “is dental school worth it?”, think long and hard about it. 

That's a real cost, and hopefully, the admissions process weeds that out for the most part. Still, I know from consults that there are folks that would like to try something else in life besides dentistry and they can't because they have such a huge debt load the size of a mortgage.

Read also: Dentists Get Drilled on Student Loans

To US News and Others Who Believe Dentistry is the Number 1 Job in America, Look at a Couple of $500,000+ Loan Burdens

I jokingly wonder if deans at the more expensive dental programs take up a collection plate for US News for keeping talk of debt under wraps. There is a massive student loan bubble waiting to pop, and dentistry is near the top of the list.

The only thing supporting it is the income-driven repayment plans that allow folks to pay a fraction of what's owed. Change access to these income-driven plans, and there would be a crisis in the field.

Say US News adjusted their rankings for average debt level after graduation. Dentistry would not be the number 1 job in America. It might not even be in the top 100.

Praising dentistry as a high-income occupation with a great average dentist salary without mentioning student debt is like praising an owner of a 10,000 square foot home for his wealth without mentioning that the entire thing is mortgaged.

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A DDS or DMD is a Very Valuable Asset, Which is Why People Keep Paying Ever More Ridiculous Sums of Money for It

Am I being a little over the top in this post? Sure I am. Dentistry is a lot more secure from recessions, layoffs, and automation than the vast majority of jobs. There will always be a need for dentists. Folks with intense pain will always be willing to pay a lot to get it to stop. 

That's why there are so many people willing to pay premium prices that rise ever higher. There is an absence of private investors putting a cap on the borrowing limits for a dental program.

Hence, the government lends without limit and schools raise their prices to claim that money from borrowers willing to sign their names to the paper.

Is this fear-mongering just to generate business for my student loan consulting firm? No. Again, large student debt burdens are great for my business. I'm actually trying to scare away dentists from signing up as an associate at a DSO for 30 years. If you read this challenging of an article and know you still love dentistry, I'm encouraged.

Dentistry can still be rewarding, but you have to play great offense AND great defense. I specialize in the defense part of the equation.

I optimize student loan strategy for dentists so you aren't making big mistakes and paying thousands in unnecessary interest. That happens about 90%-95% of the time.

Don't Lose Heart. There is a Path Forward in Dentistry

If you're a talented young dentist, don't lose heart. I speak with dentists all the time and help them come up with a plan to tackle their student debt.

Yes, the cost of completing your dental education is outrageous. However, once you have the debt, the only route is to evaluate the best options for repayment to save the most money. Then you act on it.

I save the average dentist over $100,000 over the life of their loan payback. Most dentists leave a ton of money on the table with their student loans, and I want to pick it up and put it back in your pocket.

What do I do? I make sure you're not paying a ridiculously high interest rate when you could qualify for a much lower one. I also take a look at the actual simulated cost of the various income-driven repayment options so you'll know a personalized estimate of the tax penalty associated with loan forgiveness.

We'll talk about how to set up your student loans for maximum advantage regardless if you're a practice owner, an associate, or a fourth-year dental student.

I've spoken with everyone from brand new grads barely making $100,000 in a major metro area to DentalTown ballers making over $500,000 opening a second practice less than three years out of school. All of them had opportunities to save money on their student debt.

Even though I've spoken with some wildly successful dentists making much more than the average dentist salary, most rely on income-driven repayment to cover the cost of their dental education.

Is Dental School Worth It, Really?

Until the public realizes the truth that most new dentists aren't paying off their debt in 3 years and driving a Porsche, there will continue to be dozens of applicants for every spot in dental programs.

Once the word gets out or the federal government cuts off the unlimited dollars available in loans for dental degrees, I think we'll see a crisis of epic proportions on our hands. Until that happens, maybe US News meant to say that the number 1 job in America is being Dean of a Dental School. To me, if you're asking is dental school worth it, my answer is not as much as you might think. 

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