Are High Costs and Student Debt for Dental School Justified?

A recent trip to a dentist generated a discussion about my blog and articles that I wrote about the high cost of medical school and law school. The dentist asked me if I had looked at the amount of debt that dentists incur for dental school. He said that the amounts that recent dental school graduates borrow are outrageous.

Similar to my analysis of medical school graduates’ and law school graduates’ debt, I went to the tool developed by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). When you pull up the chart for professional doctorates/dentistry, you can see that my dentist was correct. None of the graduates of the dental schools listed in the tool have a median income level that exceed the median debt.

dental school costs

As I learned from my previous review of med school and law school data, there are dental schools that are not reported in the WSJ database sourced from the College Scorecard. Based on my comparison of the list to a list of accredited schools of dentistry, there are approximately 14 dental schools not included.

The debt-to-income range of dental school graduates varies from 1.1 at East Carolina University to 4.39 at the University of Southern California. Much of this disparity in the ratio is due to the level of debt incurred by graduates.

For instance, East Carolina dental school graduates have a median debt of $131,425, compared to USC’s graduates’ median debt of $397,871. Median earnings for East Carolina’s graduates are $119,805 versus USC’s graduates’ median earnings of $90,678.

That’s a ridiculously large difference to explain. I looked at UCLA and UC-San Francisco data and noted that their graduates’ median borrowings are $182,001 and $186,578 respectively with debt-to-earnings ratios of 2.5 and 2.55.

A percentage of dentists specialize and there are residencies in areas like periodontics, orthodontics, and maxillofacial work. That could decrease a percentage of the graduates’ median earnings for the first two years as it does the median earnings of medical school graduates.

The Department of Education does not separate dental school graduates from other professional doctoral degrees like optometry, pharmacy, and physical therapy. However, it reports that 75% is the average percentage of graduates in those fields who borrow for graduate school versus 81% for medical school graduates.

The list of dental schools that are not included in the Wall Street Journal tool are:

  • ATSU Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health – Mesa, Arizona
  • California Northstate University School of Dentistry
  • Medical University of South Carolina, School of Dentistry
  • Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry
  • Midwestern University College of Dental Medicine – Downer’s Grove
  • Midwestern University College of Dental Medicine – Glendale
  • Nova Southeastern University College of Dental Medicine
  • Roseman University of Health Sciences
  • Texas Tech University of Health Sciences – El Paso
  • Touro College of Dental Medicine
  • University of Mississippi
  • University of New England – Portland
  • University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine
  • University of Utah School of Dentistry

The dentist I visited explained to me that it’s not just the debt incurred for dental school that can be staggering for newly licensed dentists. In addition to graduate student loans, dentists beginning their professional career incur costs for furnishing an office and/or buying a dental practice.

Analyzing debt incurred by graduate students, particularly those attending programs with low admission rates, is complicated. The Grad PLUS student loan program with no caps on how much a student can borrow is partially responsible for the high tuition and related costs at many colleges and universities.

In the case of graduate programs leading to professional licensure, the scarcity of available admissions slots for students is responsible for higher tuition levels as well. Reduced state funding led to higher-than-inflationary increases in tuition and fees for public institutions.

We can argue about the relative impact of the causal factors I mentioned, but it does not obviate the fact that politicians, college board members, college presidents, graduate school deans, and reporters ignored the importance of providing degrees at a cost that could be repaid within 10 years after graduation.

Transparency provided through the data distributed by the Department of Education is a good step. More data such as the percentage of students who borrow, the percentage of borrowings that are paid to the universities versus the percentage borrowed to cover costs of living, and the correction of data classification errors would be helpful.

Ultimately, the pendulum needs to swing the other way providing tuition relief, debt relief, or both. Students’ post-degree earnings must be high enough to repay the total cost of their education, regardless of whether or not they borrowed funds. Let’s keep the discussions going until the problems are resolved.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence