For millions of students, pursuing a college degree means taking on some amount of debt. That’s because college costs have risen much faster than wages, and the average cost of a four-year degree has far outpaced the rate of inflation in the past 15 or so years.
Today, a typical student borrows around $30,000 to pursue a bachelor’s degree. That amount can be even higher for students pursuing a degree needed for higher-paying jobs, such as those in medicine or law.
Here are the professions whose graduates, on average, owe the most. This list is not exhaustive, and rankings can change based on different data sets.
Average Student Loan Debt by Profession
While it’s true that jobs for people with higher degrees can pay in the six figures, student loan debt can make a significant cut into earnings. Considering student loan debt, along with salary, can give a more complete picture of what kind of financial future many graduates face.
1. Oral Surgeon
Even with a relatively high salary, oral surgeons typically graduate with a large student loan burden. The debt has a significant effect on their professional and personal decisions for decades to come, according to the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons.
The organization has lobbied for student loan reform, including halting interest accrual on student loans during an internship or residency, making sure fair income-based repayment structures are in place, and allowing qualified participants in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) to have remaining loan balances forgiven earlier than the standard 10 years.
Average student loan debt: $500,000+
Median salary: $311,460
Like other dental school graduates, orthodontists may face substantial student loan debt. After dental school, orthodontists train for orthodonture during a residency that can last several years.
The American Association of Orthodontists has supported legislation aimed at student loan reform: “Reducing interest rates and fees and allowing refinancing for today’s graduates are critical steps to helping them repay these loans sooner and more efficiently so they can begin to invest in their futures and careers,” Dr. Nahid Maleki, a former association president, has said.
Average student loan debt: $560,000
Median salary: $267,280
Less than 3% of all dentists are endodontists, according to the American Association of Endodontists. Endodontists specialize in diagnosing and treating complex causes of tooth pain. The field requires two to three years of education and training beyond dentistry. This means that endodontists may shoulder a greater debt burden than their dental school counterparts.
“The high cost of a dental or medical education is a crippling problem and threatens the future of our specialty,” Dr. Keith V. Krell, then president of the American Association of Endodontists, said. The organization has supported legislation to “funnel more money into dental schools so that unreasonable tuition costs can be offset.”
Average student loan debt: $533,000
Median salary: $242,866
Many dental students bite off a lot of debt. While the dental industry can be thought of as relatively recession-proof (your aching tooth doesn’t care about market fluctuations), dental spending may become flat during and after lean times while the supply of dentists rises.
Navigating insurance as a dental practice can also be tricky for practice owners, and the field can be competitive and crowded for new dentists.
Average student loan debt: $304,824
Median dentist salary: $167,160
Recommended: Budgeting as a New Dentist
While radiologists can be high earners in the medical field, they also may hold a staggering amount of debt that accumulates during medical school and residency. The American College of Radiologists has supported legislation to halt interest accrual during residency.
Currently, residents can request deferment or forbearance on loans, depending on their circumstances, but even if granted, interest accrues. This can add thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to the balance of a radiologist’s student loan debt.
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Average student loan debt: $241,600
Median salary: $455,000
For many medical students, residency is when student loan debt balloons. Unlike their high-earning counterparts who may immediately begin earning six-figure salaries after grad school, med students earn an average of $64,200 during residency.
During this time, interest may accrue on loans. Increasing patient loads, malpractice vulnerabilities, and more have led to burnout in this profession. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a shortage in the speciality may be on the horizon.
Average student loan debt: $241,600
Median salary: $296,210
Residency requirements can cause interest accrual to add to the debt load of these medical professionals. The American Society of Anesthesiologists supports legislation that would allow borrowers to qualify for interest-free deferment on loans while in residency.
The legislation has been introduced to Congress but has not gained traction. The work of an anesthesiologist can be grueling: Some reports have shown that anesthesiologists have a higher risk of burnout than other physicians.
Average student loan debt: $241,600
Median salary: $417,000
Also called a doctor, primary care physician, or family practitioner, a physician is an essential element of primary care for all ages, and a point of contact who works with other doctors to diagnose and treat patients. Not a medical specialty, this umbrella term can also refer to pediatricians and internal medicine doctors.
While the career path may not be as lucrative as some specialized medical careers, it offers intangible benefits, such as control over your hours worked and the ability to get to know your patients, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).
But the salary compared with student loan debt can make the debt burdensome. The AAFP has advocated for federal loans and scholarship programs that target primary and family care as well as interest deferment during residency.
Average student loan debt: $205,037
Median salary: $235,930
Recommended: Budgeting as a New Doctor
Members of one of the fastest-growing segments of health care, according to the American Osteopathic Association, osteopaths take a whole-person approach to medicine. Osteopaths may practice all medical specialties, but attend an osteopathic medical school where they receive specialized training in the musculoskeletal system.
The osteopathic association found that 86% of osteopathic medicine graduates have student loan debt. Like their medical school counterparts, osteopath students can be susceptible to burnout.
Average student loan debt: $247,218
Median salary: $231,500
Pharmacists require undergraduate and graduate school degrees, and the career path can be varied upon graduation. Some pharmacists enter research and development, while others choose to work with patients in hospitals, clinics, or commercial settings.
This can allow for career flexibility for pharmacists, as they can balance family and personal obligations with a career. But student loan debt can become a burden for pharmacists that can affect their financial decisions for decades. As with other professions, the challenge becomes balancing debt with future financial goals such as saving adequately for retirement.
Average student loan debt: $170,444
Median salary: $125,690
11. Physician Assistant
Educated at the master’s degree level, a physician assistant can diagnose, treat, and prescribe medication to patients and can often be a patient’s main health contact. A physician assistant does not have to go through the years of medical school and residency training of doctors but still must have hours of clinical experience.
The career is in demand, with three-quarters of graduates receiving multiple job offers after graduation, according to the American Association of Physician Assistants. But the student debt burden can be intense.
Average student loan debt: $112,500
Median salary $121,530
“Lawyer” has come to mean “high earner,” but the truth is much more nuanced. Lawyers have a large income discrepancy based on the type of law they pursue and the state they practice in. Some 71% of law school graduates have some form of student loan debt, and the average debt has risen in the past several decades.
For example, in 2000, law school graduates came out of the gate with an average of $59,000 (nearly $88,000, adjusted for inflation) in student loans, while today, new graduates have an average of $180,000 in cumulative debt. The American Bar Association has lobbied the government to provide student loan debt relief for lawyers.
Average student loan debt: $180,000
Median salary: $127,990
13. Physical Therapist
Physical therapists must earn a doctor of physical therapy degree, a three-year course after a bachelor’s degree. After graduation, physical therapists may do a residency or fellowship, or may begin practicing right away. Salaries can depend on the type of work a physical therapist pursues. Student debt can affect those decisions.
According to the American Physical Therapy Association, 70% of respondents to a survey said debt caused anxiety. The association has been advocating for physical therapists on Capitol Hill, lobbying for more scholarship opportunities for therapists from underrepresented backgrounds and inclusion of physical therapists in the National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program, a loan repayment program for health professionals.
Average student loan debt: $116,183
Median salary: $95,620
14. MBA Holder
Many people think a master of business administration degree (MBA) translates into a high-salary career, and while it’s true that graduates of top programs often receive high pay offers, top programs are expensive, and there’s no guarantee that a job will result. So is an MBA worth it? That depends on your career goals.
Some employers will offer full or partial tuition reimbursements to employees who pursue an MBA. Requirements vary by employer, but some expect employees to continue working during school. Though rigorous, this means that MBA students may not necessarily lose out on a salary while getting their graduate degree.
Average student loan debt: $80,892
Average salary: $115,000
15. Occupational Therapist
Occupational therapists (OTs) need to obtain a master’s degree and satisfy licensing requirements, as well as supervised fieldwork. Like physical therapists, the salary progression for OTs depends on the type of work they pursue, and the type of work they pursue also affects the type of potential loan forgiveness that may work for their circumstances.
The American Occupational Therapy Association recognizes that many students graduate with student loan debt that can be tough to pay back on a median OT salary. The association actively lobbied for occupational therapists during the COVID-19 pandemic to make sure their interests were covered under the CARES Act.
Average student loan debt: Varies
Median salary: $89,470
16. Registered Nurse
Nursing salaries — and the student loan debt that nurses carry — depend on education level. Nurses who have a Master of Science in nursing have the most student loan debt, while those who have a bachelor’s degree or associate degree have lower debt, but may have lower salaries as well. Scholarship opportunities for nurses can limit the necessity of student loans, and some nurses may qualify for forgiveness opportunities, including the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and the Nurse Corps Repayment Program, a federal program for nurses who work in high-need areas.
Recommended: Budgeting as a New Nurse
Average student loan debt (with master’s degree): $47,321
Median RN salary: $77,600
The price of college has soared, and a typical student borrows around $30,000 to pursue a four-year degree. That amount can be substantially higher for students who choose more lucrative degrees, such as those in medicine and law. Orthodontists, for example, owe an average of $560,000 in school loan debt, while lawyers owe around $180,000 in school loan debt.
There are options to help borrowers manage their debt, such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, student loan consolidation or student loan refinancing. Refinancing student loans could help you snag a lower interest rate and/or extend or shorten the loan term. Note that when you refinance, you will no longer have access to federal protections and benefits, such as certain loan forgiveness programs, the current payment pause, flexible payment plans, and more.
Refinancing could be a great choice for working graduates who have higher-interest graduate PLUS loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and/or private loans.
How much student loan debt is there in the U.S.?
Currently, there is more than $1.76 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, and more than 43.5 million Americans have federal student loan debt.
Which major has the largest amount of student debt, and which major has the least amount of student debt?
Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine is the major with the largest median debt, at $287,820, according to the Education Data Initiative. An associate’s degree in Biological and Physical Sciences is the major with the smallest median debt, at $7,590.
Which age group holds the most student debt?
Student debt is most prevalent among borrowers under 40 years of age, according to the New York Federal Reserve. That said, only 57 percent of balances are owed by those under 40. Borrowers with larger balances are more likely to be older, perhaps because they borrowed for graduate school.
Student Loan Refinancing
If you are a federal student loan borrower you should take time now to prepare for your payments to restart, including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. (You may pay more interest over the life of the loan if you refinance with an extended term.) Please note that once you refinance federal student loans, you will no longer be eligible for current or future flexible payment options available to federal loan borrowers, including but not limited to income-based repayment plans, such as the SAVE Plan, or extended repayment plans.
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