The Impact of Student Loan Debt

An article in The Wall Street Journal about student debt recounts the story of a 37-year-old orthodontist who accrued more than $1 million in student loans for his dental and orthodontic education. At the time of the article, he was making monthly payments of nearly $1600, which weren’t enough to cover the interest, so his debt was growing by $130 a day.

How did this happen? This practitioner chose to attend a dental school on the West Coast because of its prestige and his desire to be close to his parents. To pay his tuition and living expenses for his wife and family, he took out multiple student loans. Unfortunately, he was profoundly negatively affected by the increases in student loan interest rates from 2005 to 2012. Some had rates as high as 8.5%. According to records he provided to The Journal, he had borrowed more than $600,000, which swelled to more than $1 million as a result of fees and interest.

At the time of the article, he was one of 101 people in the United States who owed at least $1 million in federal student loans, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Five years ago, 14 people owed that much. This is not to say he was not informed of the challenges of such a debt load. According to the article, he was encouraged to service his debt while in school. Yet he maintained that because he was attending school full-time and had become a father, there was no time to have a job. However, his wife supplemented their income and reduced his tuition by working at the school.


After graduation, he used a government option that allows borrowers to postpone debt payments on student loans. He later entered another government-sponsored repayment plan based on income. Had he not done this, his monthly payments would be more than $10,000, while his monthly income, after taxes, was approximately $13,000.

Staggeringly, his debt will surpass $2 million over the 25-year life of the repayment plan. And this oral health professional is not the only clinician facing daunting educational debt. Dental school is the costliest higher education program in United States; during the 2015–2016 school year, for example, private dental schools charged an average of $71,820 a year. Specialty program tuition can be even higher.

While this may be an extreme case, it underscores the impact that educational debt is having on the latest generation of practitioners. Dentistry and its specialties are wonderful professions with great personal rewards. That said, the reality is that prospective students need to make informed decisions about debt and its long-term consequences before enrolling in dental school. At the same time, the dental community should carefully examine the impact that rising dental school tuition is having on the profession, and seek innovative ways to keep costs in check.

Thomas G. Wilson Jr., DDS

Editor in Chief
From Decisions in Dentistry. January 2019;5(1):6.

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