Dental instrument and dental mold on 20 dollar bills
Advice and Insights September 27, 2021

By Debra Wood, RN, contributor

4 Tips to Pay Off Dental School Debt

Dentist jobs continually rank at the top of the U.S. News Best Jobs list, and 2021 was no exception. Dentists ranked fifth among all health care jobs, and came in ninth among all occupations, slipping slightly from their rankings the previous year.

The rewards of the profession are many—yet earning a dental degree in order to practice is extremely costly.

That’s why most young dentists graduate with substantial dental school debt. How they manage it and how it affects their careers differs, however.

The American Dental Education Association (ADEA) reports that among the dental school class of 2020*:

  • 83 percent graduated with student loan debt
  • Their average debt was $304,824
  • The average indebtedness for graduates of public dental schools was $270,125
  • The average indebtedness for private school graduates was $349,730

The ADEA indicates dental school grads have a reputation for repaying their debt in a timely manner, and young dentists begin earning money after graduation more quickly than other health professionals.

Many borrowers are unaware that their loan may start accruing interest at disbursement, however. That interest is added back to the principal. The debt can take years to pay off, even for dentists who earn a good salary.

How much dentists earn. As 2020 was an unusual year due to pandemic closures, the average net earnings for employed general practitioner dentists was about $126,000, down from $160,000 the previous year. Meanwhile, dental practice owners averaged $187,070 net earnings in 2020, down from  $201,860 the previous year, according to the American Dental Association’s 2019 and 2020 Surveys of Dental Practice. Specialists earn more, averaging $323,780 in 2020, down slightly from $330,180 across all specialties in 2019.  

A 2015 study in The Journal of the American Dental Association found dentists with high debt levels were less likely to specialize than young dentists with less debt. Those with high student debts are more likely to accept high-paying jobs, work longer hours, and enter private practice.

Can you have student debt and own a dental practice?

Yes, says Sabrina Morrow, MBA, vice president and business development manager for Healthcare at Wells Fargo Practice Finance in Seattle. New dentists can borrow for a private practice, even if they have student loans. She indicated other debts can be a challenge, however.

4 Ways To Pay Off Dental School Loans

1. Refinance the Note

“If you owe less than 1.5 times your income, you should pay it off,” advised Travis Hornsby, CFA, founder, and CEO of Student Loan Planner in St. Louis.

That payoff may involve refinancing the original debt. Interest rates currently remain low, making it a good time to refinance.

Or, if possible, the dentist also can aggressively repay the loan, in order to pay as little interest as possible.

Many new dentists are able to refinance their debt at a lower interest rate, according to ADEA.

The American Dental Association (ADA) has a relationship with Laurel Road, which will offer members a discount on refinancing and does not charge members application or origination fees. Additionally, the ADA charges recent graduates reduced dues.

2. Consider Federal Loan Forgiveness Programs

The Pay As You Earn (PAYE) program offers a way to forgive some dental school debt. These plans require payment of 10 percent of the dentist’s discretionary income for 20 years. It’s available to borrowers who took out loans after 2011 but not before October 2007.

“If you owe more than 1.5 times your income though, you could get a lot of your debt forgiven,” Hornsby said. “Just pay 10 percent of your income over 20 years, and the remaining balance gets wiped away at the end.”

However, he warned, the dentist “would pay income taxes on the forgiven balance, but even if the sum is large, you can just save a few hundred dollars a month in a mutual fund account…and likely have enough to cover it.”

Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) for people with direct loans also requires paying 10 percent of discretionary income and offers dental school debt forgiveness after 25 years.

3. Participate in the PSLF Program

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program offers loan forgiveness of remaining federal debt after the dentist works in the public service or a tax-exempt not-for-profit organization for at least 10 years. Before applying, the dentist must work full-time and make 120 timely payments to the lender. Also, the loan has to be direct or consolidated into a direct loan.

4. Earn extra income working locum tenens

Locum tenens dentist assignments offer part-time or full-time positions. The pay is good. Working part-time assignments on top of a full-time job can help young dentists pay down their student loans faster. Full-time travelers can earn money while they travel to different areas and decide where they might want to set up or join a dental practice.

Locum agencies also cover housing and travel expenses for travel assignments, which can help locum dentists avoid some major expenses.


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