Dental School Debt is Skyrocketing, But Forgiveness Programs Are Expanding

The cost to graduate from dental school has risen dramatically in the past 40 years. Could you now qualify for recently expanded programs that offer forgiveness or repayment to qualifying dentists and dental hygienists?

By Genni Burkhart

In the past 40 years the cost to graduate from dental school in the United States has steadily risen. Last year dental school graduates averaged $304, 824 in student debt with only 17 percent reporting having none, according to a survey by the American Dental Education Association (ADEA).

In 2017 the ADEA reported 85 percent of dental students as having $287,000 in student loans. That’s an average debt increase of six percent in just three years.

In a 2019 American Dental Association (ADA) article the chair of the ADA’s New Dentist Committee, Dr. Jarvis states, “These same students would have graduated in 1975 owing nearly $63,000, and 1985 graduates would have left school owing more than $126,000, while 1995 graduates would have been starting their careers owing almost $179,000, just in student loans.”

For perspective, approximately 83 percent of graduating dentists entering the workforce now carry dental school loans, leaving many to manage a demanding new career under enormous debt. With it now being easier than ever to qualify for the public service loan forgiveness (PSLF) program, we'll review and discuss the best ways to manage the beast that is, dental school loans.

Renewal of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLFP)

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced a round of changes to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLFP). This program allows qualifying borrowers with direct federal loans to have their balance forgiven if they make 10 years, or 120 payments, while working full-time for a qualifying employer. Federal, state, local or tribal governments, and not-for-profit organizations are considered qualifying employers.

The Department estimates over 550,000 borrowers will be helped by this limited waiver, and they're continuing steps to strengthen the PSLF program.

One of the most significant changes the Department is making is to offer retroactive waivers to count Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL) toward the 120 payments required for forgiveness, but only if the loan is consolidated into the direct loan program. Additionally, prior payments (regardless of the loan type, repayment type, and payment history) will qualify towards the 120 required payments, as long as it's a direct loan. However, there is one type of loan still not eligible: Parent PLUS loans.

Dentists, dental hygienists, and allied dental providers in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are eligible for these renewed programs.

The ADEA has a useful website to help inform dental professionals of changes to state and federal legislation as it relates to student loan repayment programs at ADEA U.S. Interactive Legislative Tracking Map.

The National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program (NHSC)

For those with private or federal loans, the NHSC is an option for dentists and dental hygienists working in a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA).

HPSAs are a designated "geographic location, population, or facility that has a lack of primary care, dental care or mental health providers." The Health Resources & Services administration allows you to search for these areas through their website.

In exchange for loan repayment, the NHSC requires participants to serve a minimum of two years at an NHSC-approved site in an HPSA.

The National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program offers repayment of student loans based on:

  • Full-time service: Up to $50,000 for a two-year initial term
  • Half-time service: Up to $25,000 for a two-year initial term

However, if you serve in a private practice, you're ineligible to qualify under half-time service.

This year’s deadline for as much as $120,000 ($30,000/year) in tax-free student loan repayment by the NHSC to Doctor of Dental Surgery or Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry students (in their last year of college) is fast approaching on November 4th.

Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)

Plan on taking the academic route after dental school? The faculty here at DOCS Education can certainly appreciate that.

If your calling is to higher education in dentistry, and you're a faculty member at an approved health professional school the HRSA program will repay a portion of your student loan debt, a maximum of $40,000 over two years. You can review the Faculty Loan Repayment Program Fact Sheet to determine your eligibility and qualifications.

National Institute of Health (NIH) Loan Repayment Programs (LRPs)

For graduating dentists going into biomedical or biobehavioral research careers, the NIH has a set of loan repayment programs established by Congress to recruit professionals. These loan repayment programs were established due to the escalating cost of education in medicine and clinical research, and the competing appeal of working for higher-paying private institutions. These programs offer loan repayment up to $50,000 annually of qualifying educational debt. In return, dentists with a DDS or DMD degree must commit to working on NIH mission-relevant research.

In Conclusion

With the cost to complete dental school trending ever upwards, it's imperative for graduates to stay updated on changes to loan forgiveness programs, especially those targeted towards medical professionals. Under the recent expansion of federal loan forgiveness programs, borrowers could discover opportunities they might not have previously considered or now qualify for. Additionally, there's potential that the Department of Education will further expand federal student loan forgiveness to even more borrowers next year.

As dental professionals continue to start their careers with a substantial burden of debt, public and private sectors are taking notice and expanding programs and opportunities to lessen the debt of education carried by far too many health care professionals.

Author: With over 11 years as a published journalist, editor, and writer Genni Burkhart’s career has spanned politics, healthcare, law, business finance, and news. She resides on the western shores of the Puget Sound where she works as the Editor in Chief at DOCS Education out of Seattle, WA.

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