Dental care is an important part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, as oral health is connected to health issues in other parts of the body.
The demand for dentists, like other health care professionals, is on the rise, partly due to an aging U.S. population and partly due to more attention on dental health with each generation. The aging population is likely to need additional oral care, some of which can include complicated procedures.
By learning about the average tuition costs and ways to pay for dental school, prospective students can figure out if a dental career is the right choice for their future.
Employment Outlook for Dentists
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects there to be a 6% increase in available dentist jobs from 2021 to 2031. Dentists can work in a variety of settings, such as in private practice — either on their own or with a partner — or in an outpatient care center, among others.
The median annual salary of a general dentist was $163,220 in 2021. For perspective, the median annual U.S. income in the same year was $70,784.
While dentistry pays well, it also costs a lot to become a dentist. Dental school programs typically take four years to complete after students have already completed a bachelor’s degree. A degree from an accredited dental school will be either a D.D.S. — Doctor of Dental Surgery — or a D.M.D. — Doctor of Dental Medicine.
Individual universities determine which degree is awarded, but they are both approved by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), a part of the American Dental Association (ADA). Whichever degree a dental graduate is awarded, chances are they may also have hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of student loan debt to contend with after graduation.
How Much Does Dental School Cost?
The range of dental school costs depends on whether a student is in state (resident) or out of state (non-resident), and whether attending a public or private school. In-state public school tuition is typically going to be the least expensive option for most students.
According to the ADA, the average first-year cost of dental school (public or private), including tuition and mandatory fees, in 2021-2022 was $53,601 for residents and $71,742 for non-residents.
The cost difference between public schools and private schools can be substantial. The average resident cost for the first year of a public dental school program was $39,662, while the resident cost for private dental school was $72,271. After four years in school, students are looking at between $158,648 and $289,084 worth of debt, on average.
According to the American Dental Education Association (ADEA), in 2021, 81% of dental school students graduated with dental school debt. The average debt for a dental school graduate for the same year was $284,855.
Prospective students can compare the cost of dental schools and then determine how much they are willing to pay for their education. According to the ADA, there are 70 accredited dental schools throughout the United States and 10 in Canada.
Ways to Pay for Dental School
Even though dental school tuition can be expensive, students have options when figuring out how to afford it. Students can explore scholarships, grants, fellowships, or service programs to help pay for dental school.
Federal or private student loans are also an option. After graduating from dental school, some borrowers may consider refinancing their student loans as they pay off dental school debt. Continue reading for more details on ways to pay for dental school.
1. Scholarships and Grants
Scholarships and grants are awards that, in most cases, don’t have to be repaid. For students without the means to pay for tuition and other costs from personal savings, exploring these options may be a good place to start.
Dental schools may offer scholarships and grants to students who meet certain academic standards or who are working towards a certain type of degree, for example. When researching dental schools, prospective students may consider asking financial aid offices about available scholarships and grants.
Along with reaching out to schools, students may want to research scholarships and grants through organizations like The American Dental Association, The American Association of Public Health Dentistry, or The American Dental Education Association. There are also a variety of online scholarship search tools that students can use to find scholarships.
Recommended: What Is a Scholarship & How to Get One?
Dental school is rigorous, but if students have the time and energy, they may want to consider working to supplement their educational costs. The Federal Work-Study program is available to graduate and professional students with financial need, and has the same eligibility requirements and position availability as it does for undergraduate students. Financial aid offices at individual schools will have information pertaining to this program.
Training grants and fellowships, an option some dental students might find appealing, are sources of funding that often include a stipend and sometimes cover part of a student’s tuition.
These programs are designed to further a student’s education in a specific research area that interests them. They differ from simple grants in that there is a work component to them.
3. Service Programs
The Bureau of Health Workforce offers scholarships, loans, and loan repayment programs to eligible healthcare students and workers, including those in the dental field. One program, the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), provides scholarships to eligible students pursuing degrees in certain health professions.
In exchange for two years of full-time service in an underserved area, recipients will receive one year of scholarship support, up to a limit of four school years. The Bureau of Health Workforce also offers grants to eligible applicants through the Oral Health Workforce Development programs.
Service programs are also offered through the Indian Health Service (IHS). Eligible American Indian and Alaska Native students can apply for the IHS Scholarship, externship programs, or loan repayment programs. Scholarships are available to eligible students in pre-dental programs or for those completing dental school.
Recipients agree to serve a two-year commitment with the IHS. Third-year dental students can choose to apply for an externship, which typically spans two to four weeks, with placement in an Indian health facility. Loan repayment programs are either through the IHS or the NHSC. Both include a service commitment.
Students willing to serve in the military may want to consider programs through the United States Army, Navy, or Air Force. Each branch offers scholarships through the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP).
Military scholarships cover full tuition and other related costs, plus a monthly stipend. Recipients agree to serve on active military duty in exchange for scholarship funds — the number of years varies with the branch and the number of years the student receives the scholarship.
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4. Federal Student Loans
Completing the FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form is the first step students should take to determine eligibility for federal financial aid. To fill out the form, they will need to provide personal identification and financial records.
Federal student loans for graduate and professional school students are either Direct Unsubsidized Loans or Direct PLUS Loans. Students may borrow up to $20,500 each year in Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and eligibility is not based on financial need.
If a student has costs in excess of that borrowing limit, they may want to consider a Direct PLUS Loan. Like a Direct Unsubsidized Loan, eligibility for a Direct PLUS Loan is not based on financial need, although a credit check is required.
Students are encouraged to ask the financial aid office at their school about school-based loans that might be available. Some federal funds are offered to schools instead of directly to students and are tied to certain eligibility requirements.
5. Private Student Loans
It’s always recommended that students exhaust all federal student loan options before considering a private student loan. But if there is still a financial need, a private student loan may be the right choice for some students. Private student loans are available from private lenders and are awarded based on factors including your income, credit history, and credit score, among other factors.
Considering Student Loan Refinancing
After graduating, now-dentists may consider refinancing their student loans to secure a more competitive interest rate or more favorable terms. Refinancing also allows borrowers to combine all their loans into a single loan. This won’t be the right choice for all borrowers because when you refinance federal loans you’ll lose access to any federal benefits — like any loan forgiveness options.
Should you refinance your student loans? The answer is personal and will depend on factors including the amount of student debt you currently have, your credit score, income, and whether you are refinancing without a cosigner.
A cosigner is someone who agrees to repay the loan if you are unable to do so for any reason. Adding a cosigner can potentially strengthen your application, allowing you to secure more competitive terms than without the cosigner.
Recommended: Student Loan Refinance Guide
To get an idea of what refinancing could do for your student loans, take a look at SoFi’s student loan refinancing calculator.
Dental school can be expensive but can lead to a fulfilling and lucrative career. When determining how to pay for dental school, students can explore dental school scholarships, grants, federal student loans, and private student loans. After graduating, former students may consider student loan refinancing, to combine their existing loans and hopefully secure more competitive terms.
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