How to pay for dental school

Taking out loans for dental school can help you reach your career goals. (iStock)

Similar to medical school or law school, attending dental school could mean dealing with some sizable tuition bills — and you need to plan out how to pay for it.

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According to the American Dental Association, the average first-year cost of attending dental school, including school tuition and fees, totaled $53,002 for residents and $69,905 for non-residents in the 2018-19 academic year. An American Dental Education Association survey found only 17.1% of those to graduate dental school in 2019 left with no student debt. Meanwhile, just over 77% of 2019 dental school grads owed $100,000 or more in student loan debt.

If you're planning to attend dentistry school, you'll first need to plan how to pay off dental school. There are numerous options to consider, including:

  • Grants and scholarships
  • Service programs
  • Federal student loans
  • Private student loans

Read on to fully understand all the options available to pay for your dental education.

Grants and scholarships

Grants and scholarships may be your first choice for covering school tuition, living expenses and other costs related to dental school. In most cases, scholarships don't have to be paid back so accepting them doesn't create any debt that you'll have to deal with after graduation.

Dental school scholarships are often merit-based, meaning your ability to qualify depends on your academic history. Dental grants, on the other hand, may be merit-based or need-based, meaning the organization making the grant takes your financial situation into account.

Your school's financial aid office can help with finding scholarship and grant opportunities. You can also search for dental grants and scholarships online. For instance, here are a few popular dental education scholarship programs to consider:

When researching scholarships and grants for dental school, pay close attention to application deadlines. Some deadlines extend into mid-fall but others wrap earlier in the year, so it's important to know when the window closes to apply.

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Service programs

Service programs allow you to get funding to pay for dental school in exchange for a work commitment. Each program is structured differently, but they can help with covering education costs for dentistry school.

The National Health Service Corps Scholarship program, for example, is open to dentistry students who are pursuing a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor Medicine in Dentistry (DMD) degree. For each full year of scholarship support you receive, you must commit to a minimum of two years of full-time service at an NHSC-approved site. To qualify, you must be attending or accepted to an accredited dental school in the U.S., including the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.

The Health Professions Scholarship Program can cover dental school education costs for up to four years of study, as well as books, equipment and other fees. You can also receive a monthly stipend of up to $2,200, a monthly allowance for food and housing and a sign-on bonus. You must maintain full-time enrollment status to qualify. In exchange for getting dental school paid for, you agree to become an active duty member of the U.S. Armed Forces.

These programs can relieve much of the financial burden of becoming a dental student. But you should consider what kind of service commitment you're comfortable with in exchange for getting some or all of your DDS program costs covered. If you dream of opening your own practice right after graduation, for example, a service commitment could put a wrench in those plans.

Federal student loans

If you've explored scholarships, dental grant opportunities and researched service programs, federal student loans are the next option to consider.

There are several types of federal loans for dental school, including:

To apply for Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Federal Grad PLUS Loans, you'll first need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The information you include on this form is used to determine how much financial aid you might qualify for. You can also use the FAFSA to apply for Health Professions Student Loans, but these loans are administered by the Department of Health and Human Services instead of the Department of Education.

The upside of taking out Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans or Grad PLUS Loans is that they're both eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. This type of student loan forgiveness allows you to enroll in an income-driven repayment plan while pursuing a dental career in public service. If you qualify for the program, you may be able to get a sizable amount of dental school debt forgiven.

Health Professions Student Loans are not eligible for loan forgiveness. But it's still worth considering these student loans to pay for dental school since they can offer competitive interest rates.

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Private student loans

Private loans can be a good way to close financial aid gaps when paying for dental school. If you're going to a school with a higher cost of attendance, you may easily exhaust your federal student loan borrowing limits.

Private student loans can offer fixed or variable interest rates, and the rates you qualify for are tied to your credit score. If you have a short credit history or lower credit score, you may need a cosigner to qualify for private student loans.

If you're considering private student loans because you've reached your federal loan borrowing cap, visit Credible to compare rates from multiple lenders side by side.

It's also helpful to use an online student loan calculator to estimate your monthly payments for private student loans. Credible can also help you find what rates you qualify for today.

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Is dental school worth the debt? 

Before taking out loans for dental school, it's important to consider whether the amount you'll pay is justified. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dentists earned a median pay of $159,200 in 2019 and the job outlook for dentists is expected to increase by 7% through 2028.

Those numbers are encouraging but, again, consider what your total cost of repayment might be if you take federal or private student loans for dental school. Refinancing down the line could help you save money if you're able to lock in lower rates. And with federal loans, forgiveness may be an option depending on your career plans.

With private student loans, it's important to compare lenders carefully before borrowing. Doing so can help you find the best loans for dental school at the best possible rates.

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