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Average Student Loan Debt 2021: Who Owes the Most?

By Anna Davies · May 04, 2021 · 8 minute read

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Average Student Loan Debt 2021: Who Owes the Most?

What do a doctor, a lawyer, and a dentist have in common? It sounds like the setup to a joke, but the punchline is anything but funny. All of these professions may come with a staggering amount of student loan 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. Meanwhile, in some cases wages have remained stagnant or have even dipped when adjusted for inflation, as certain industries have radically shifted over the past decade.

The COVID-19 pandemic created further volatility, especially for recent graduates, who may have entered an employment landscape with fewer job opportunities.

The pandemic and the 2020 election also brought student loan debt into the spotlight, with lawmakers calling for reducing the debt held by 45 million Americans. Professional organizations have also lobbied for measures to curb ballooning student debt and provide smoother pathways for repayment.

Average Student Loan Debt by Profession

Student loan debt cuts across demographics and economic achievement, yet there are nuances.
Upper-income households are responsible for a disproportionate share of student loan debt. The highest-income 40% of households (those making over $74,000 a year) hold 60% of all student loan debt, accounting for three-quarters of all student loan payments, according to the Brookings Institution, citing recent data from the Fed’s Survey of Consumer Finances.

And while graduate programs enroll only 15% of all higher education students, the programs account for 40% of all federal student loans issued each year, according to the Center for American Progress. In other words: The more education you have, the more debt you may have as well, and a high salary only tells one part of someone’s financial story.

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.

Here are professions whose graduates, on average, owe the most. This list is not exhaustive, and rankings can change based on different data sets.

1. Oral Surgeon

Graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars owed can be daunting. Even with a relatively high salary, oral surgeons with a large student loan burden find that 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 to have remaining loan balances forgiven earlier than the standard 10 years.

Average student loan debt: can top $400,000

Median salary: $291,100

2. Orthodontist

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. A while back, an orthodontist named Mike Meru garnered worldwide headlines for racking up over $1 million in student loan debt.

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: $365,000

Median salary: $208,000

3. Endodontist

Less than 3% of all dentists are endodontists, according to the American Association of Endodontists, a specialty that 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: $228,443

4. Dentist

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: $292,169

Median dentist salary: $155,600

5. Radiologist

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.

Average student loan debt: $241,600

Median salary: $509,000

6. Obstetrician-Gynecologist

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 $61,200 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: $303,000

7. Anesthesiologist

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: $395,000

8. Physician

Also called a doctor, primary care physician, or family practitioner, a physician is an essential element of primary care of all ages, and can be 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: $241,600

Median salary: $206,500

9. Osteopath

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: $240,331

Median salary: $208,000

10. Pharmacist

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:$179,514

Median salary: $125,000

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 $112,260

12. Lawyer

“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. Nearly 75% 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 $160,000 in cumulative debt. The American Bar Association has lobbied the government to provide student loan debt relief for lawyers.

Average student loan debt: $160,000

Median salary: $122,960

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: $142,500

Median salary: $89,440

14. MBA Holder

Many people think a master of business administration degree 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 people find that employers will pay for an MBA, and MBA studies, while rigorous, can sometimes be done alongside working, which means that MBA students may not necessarily lose out on a salary while getting their graduate degree.

Average student loan debt: $100,000

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: $90,200

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.

Average student loan debt (with master’s degree): $47,230

Median RN salary: $64,830

The Takeaway

The salary of a professional just starting out may seem fabulous but perhaps loses a bit of luster vis-a-vis a pile of student loan debt. With six-figure education debts common, professional organizations are lobbying for student loan relief and the ability for anyone of any financial circumstance to be able to pursue their professional dreams.

If you have student loans and think you could benefit from a lower interest rate, see what refinancing student debt could mean for you.

It’s easy to check your rate.



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