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By Timothy Hyland

Where will tomorrow’s dentists come from?

Across the country, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, the number of students enrolling in U.S.-based colleges and universities has been in decline for nearly a decade—and the decline has been dramatic. 

Though dental schools have not yet felt a severe pinch, the trend does not bode well for the profession in the long term.

According to newly released data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, there were nearly 250,000 fewer students enrolled in college this fall as compared to just one year ago. Over the course of the past eight years, total nationwide college enrollment has dropped by 11 percent.

“With every institutional sector experiencing enrollment declines this fall, the higher education industry has now shed more than 2 million students since its peak in 2011,” Doug Shapiro, executive research director for the NSCRC, said in a statement.

Doug Shapiro
NSCRC's Doug Shapiro

The losses cut across all categories of institutions—four-year public institutions, four-year private institutions, two-year public institutions, and four-year for-profit institutions—and were particularly dramatic in Florida (which lost 52,328 students), New York (19,386), California (19,272), Missouri (14,869) and Pennsylvania (14,799).

At the graduate and professional levels, many of the same trends are occurring. 

According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, for example, 73 percent of all U.S.-based MBA programs saw a drop in applications last year, with total applications falling by nearly 11 percent. In February 2019, the Council of Graduate Schools reported that applications to U.S graduate programs from international students fell four percent, following another decrease the year earlier. The CGS called the trend, “troubling.”

Both medical schools and dental schools have fared better in general.

According to the American Dental Education Association, applications to U.S. dental schools have increased over the past century, rising from just under 6,000 in 1900 to a peak of just over 14,000 in 2008. Since then, the numbers have trended down, but only slightly. In 2017, the most recent year for which numbers were available, total applications were at 12,426.

While the number of dental school graduates has increased in the past decade, that increase has not kept pace with the rise in the U.S. population, nor the related increase in demand for dental services.

Kellie Bove, senior director of marketing and branding for the ADEA, said that health care careers, including dentistry, have long held steady as among the most desirable careers for young people. That enduring appeal, she said, may have helped shield dental schools from the more severe admissions crunch being faced by other institutions.

Kellie Bove
ADEA's Kellie Bove

“There is...the prestige and stability that comes with being a dentist, as well as flexibility and independence—including the opportunity to own their own business upon graduation,” Bove said. “There are a wide range of career options upon graduation in addition to practice, from pursuing dental specialties to research to academic dentistry and shaping the future of oral health care.”

The ADEA did note, however, that there have also been slight decreases in applications to pediatric dentistry and orthodontics programs, and—while the number of dental school graduates has increased in the past decade—that increase has not kept pace with the rise in the U.S. population, nor the related increase in demand for dental services.

While there were 2.4 dental graduates per 100,000 people in the U.S in 1978, that number has slipped to 1.9 per 100,000 today.

Judith Porter, DDS, MA, EdD, associate dean of admissions and recruitment at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, noted that dental schools do have their challenges, as the overall downward trend suggests. These schools aren’t enjoying the same popularity as medical schools, and she said that some in the industry believe that the high costs of dental schools are a big reason why.

Maryland is “holding its own” at the moment, she said, and keeping track of national trends to stay ahead of the curve.

“We have worked on and achieved a reputation for diversity—that helps a lot,” Dr. Porter said. “We have noticed the same national trends for uncompleted applications as students become more cautious about their ability to pay back loans.”

Author: Contributing writer Timothy Hyland has more than 20 years' experience as a writer, reporter, and editor. His work has also appeared in Fast Company, Roll Call, Philadelphia Business Journal, and The Washington Times.

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