By Stacey Ritzen, WCI Contributor
Making the decision to attain a DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery) or DMD (Doctor of Dental Medicine) degree is no small commitment, as programs typically consist of four years of undergraduate school and then four years of dental school. Then, dentists who opt to specialize in a specific field— including oral and maxillofacial surgery, periodontics, pediatric dentistry, endodontics, and prosthodontics—may require an additional 2-4 years of school, including a dental residency.
Yet, dentistry is generally a reasonably stable practice within the medical field. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a projected 8% growth from 2020-2030, which is about average for most occupations.
However, the demand for dentists is only expected to continue to increase, given the fact that each passing generation is more likely to keep their teeth than the previous generation. Therefore, it won’t be long before larger numbers of older people will require complicated dental services, such as implants and bridges. In addition, older patients also experience heightened risks of oral cancer, which likewise increases with age.
And while dentistry can be a lucrative field under the right circumstances, dental school is also not cheap. So, before getting too far into the application process, it’s a good idea to weigh the cost-benefit analysis and see if dentistry is the right field for you.
How Much Is Dental School?
The exact cost of dental school is dependent on a variety of factors, such as whether the school you attend is an in-state public school, an out-of-state school, or a private school program. Costs for in-state public schools average about $40,000 per year, while out-of-state or private schools may cost $50,000-$70,000 and prestigious institutions can charge over $75,000 per year.
Depending on which option you choose, students can be looking at anywhere from $150,000-$300,000 for four years of dental school. And when you consider the four years of undergrad required before starting a dentistry program, those tuition costs can add up fast.
On top of tuition, other factors can impact how much you might spend on dental school. For instance, if you’re living on or near campus, you may incur the cost of living expenses such as rent, transportation, and meals. For those who rely on student loans to help pay for dental school, which is the majority of dental students, those loans are subject to interest rates and repayment terms.
This is the reason why students who fund their education with loans also end up paying more for dental school than those fortunate enough to have grants, scholarships, other forms of financial aid, or a family member who can help contribute.
Is Dental School More Expensive Than Medical School?
Doing some basic number crunching, dental school is indeed more expensive than medical school. There’s not really a gray area here. Dental school tuition is higher than medical school, and the debts for dental school students run deeper than those in medical school and they don't get as favorable terms on additional student loans.
Exacerbating the debt of dental students is that if you live in a state that requires a post-doctoral residency—unlike medical school residencies that pay a salary—dental school residencies actually charge tuition. So, you're delaying paying back your student loans and you're actively falling deeper into debt between the added tuition and living expenses.
In that regard, it’s almost like going to dental school twice.
Dentists also tend to have a greater debt-to-income ratio after graduating. While physician specialists typically come out of residency at or near their peak earnings capability, it can take up to 10 years for dental specialists to see their full earnings potential. That means it might take longer to pay off student loans, which in turn means you’ll be paying more interest in the long run.
Debt-to-Income Ratios for Dentists
When determining whether enrolling in dental school makes the most practical financial sense, the best way of looking at it is from a debt-to-income perspective. Quite simply, a debt-to-income ratio takes your overall debt and divides it by your yearly income.
While most financial experts agree that a 2/1 debt-to-income ratio is acceptable for a mortgage, a 1/1 debt-to-income ratio is preferable for paying off student loans within a few years of graduating. For instance, if the total amount of your student loan debt is approximately equal to your yearly salary, that’s a 1/1 debt-to-income ratio that is also considered an excellent financial investment.
When you creep into a 2/1 debt-to-income ratio, the payoff is still mostly practical, but you might have to live like a resident for a few years longer to pay down your debt. But at 3/1— say, if you make $150,000 per year and your debt exceeds $450,000—you’re looking at a much more precarious repayment situation.
Not only do you risk carrying that debt throughout your professional career, but you may find that retirement may not be as comfortable as you’d hoped.
General dentists tend to have higher debt-to-income ratios than other medical professionals since tuition costs are higher and salaries are generally lower. But that changes when it comes to dental specialists—who make more money than their general dentistry counterparts, even with the added years of schooling and education costs.
Cheapest Dental School Options
Your best bet for finding an affordable dental school program is to stick to a public, in-state college. If financial aid, grants, or scholarships are available, even better. The following are the most affordable US dental schools, as of 2022 — according to Student Loan Planner:
- University of Puerto Rico: Annual tuition is $16,000
- Texas A&M: Annual tuition is $18,288
- University of Texas at San Antonio: Annual tuition is $24,150
- University of Augusta: Annual tuition is $25,576
- University of Alabama: Annual tuition is $28,576
- University of Oklahoma: Annual tuition is $28,720
- UT Health Science Center at Houston: Annual tuition is $29,040
- University of Mississippi: Annual tuition is $31,167
- University of Kentucky: Annual tuition is $33,704
- East Carolina University: Annual tuition is $36,612
For what it's worth, the University of Puerto Rico, Texas A&M, and East Carolina University also have some of the cheapest medical school tuitions in the US.
Is Becoming a Dentist Worth It?
In addition to the financial challenges, dental school is also an intense four-year curriculum with a workload that can be several times more challenging than undergraduate studies. Having said that, most dentists who pay off their student loans within a manageable amount of time report a high level of job satisfaction.
Among the draws of dentistry include job flexibility and the ability to travel, as most dentists are able to work as their own bosses. And with the increased need for dentists, unemployment rates remain virtually nonexistent—even during a global pandemic—making dentistry still one of the best career options in the US.
Additionally, U.S. News & World Report ranked dentistry as No. 16 on its 2022 list of best jobs in the healthcare space, with oral and maxillofacial surgeons coming in at #7. While not as high as other professional medical careers, the median salary of a dentist was $163,220 in May 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; and top earners can even make more than $210,000 per year.
While most dentists find their profession to be worth it, there are definitely many factors to consider, both financial and otherwise. So if nothing else, hopefully, we’ve given you some food for thought to chew on as you make your decision—just make sure to floss after.
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