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Federal scholarships can help with dental debt

February 10, 2016

By Jennifer Garvin

Dental school was always in the cards for Kyle Larsen. Not part of the dream? Graduating with a lot of debt. So Mr. Larsen, 26, a third-year dental student at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine, applied for federal scholarships while an undergrad at Brigham Young University-Idaho, and earned the 4-year National Health Service Corps Scholarship.

The scholarship pays full tuition and fees and also provides him with a living stipend for each year of dental school.

“I was lucky enough to be awarded the four-year program,” said Mr. Larsen, president of Colorado’s American Student Dental Association chapter and ASDA trustee for District 9, “but other lengths are also available. The program is year-for-year payment for service meaning that each year they pay for your education, you owe them a year of service in an underserved area.”


Kyle Larsen, a third year dental student, practices treatment planning with a fellow student at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine.


NHSC scholarships are one route for federal scholarships but there are others, including the military’s Health Professions Scholarship Program. (See sidebar, this page.)

Dr. Hillary Key was a volunteer at a nonprofit children’s dental clinic in Phoenix where she “fell in love with dentistry.” During her first year at Midwestern University’s College of Dental Medicine in Glendale, Arizona, she decided to apply for a military scholarship and was awarded the Air Force’s three-year scholarship though the Health Professions Scholarship Program. She is presently a general dentist at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas.

“During dental school, it was a blessing to have tuition and supplies paid for, as well as living expenses,” said Dr. Key whose husband was in physical therapy school at the same time. “We only had to take out loans for his tuition, which was a huge blessing.

“Being a dentist in the Air Force, for me, was the best decision I could have made as a new graduate. I attended a one-year Advanced Education in General Dentistry program at Eglin Air Force Base in Destin, Florida, which really helped me to build up my confidence and my clinical skills in each of the dental specialties.”


Dr. Key
Dr. Key likened Air Force dental clinics to group practices — with many opportunities to learn.

“I have a wealth of clinical knowledge to draw from, and help if I run into a new or unfamiliar clinical situation,” she said. “I am able to practice in the different specialties of dentistry, where I feel comfortable. There are also a number of continuing education opportunities available. I attended a prosthodontics continuing education course for an entire month at Lackland AFB in San Antonio — I can’t imagine owning a private practice, and leaving it for a month.”

After graduation, Mr. Larsen said he would like to pursue an Advanced Education in General Dentistry or general practice residency in order to advance his skills and prepare to practice in a rural area. Originally he thought he’d return to his home state of Washington, where his father is a dentist, but now is considering staying in Colorado. He’s interested in working with programs that increase access to care, particularly the state’s “Dental Health Matters.”

My heart is with underserved and rural populations anyway, so I would like to practice in a medically underserved area even after my scholarship service years,” he said.

Mr. Larsen said he always tries to remind classmates either by email or Facebook when scholarship applications are upcoming and every year, he says, current and incoming students ask him about his.

My classmates are all aware of the scholarship that I have and a good amount of them know about the other loan repayment programs that are out there,” he said. “I think it’s an amazing program, especially for those who are interested in practicing in rural areas. The program frees you of the debt that might restrict you from serving a population that truly needs it and that you might have otherwise served had it not been for the amount of debt that you have.”

I would recommend [the Air Force] to any dental student, without reservation,” Dr. Key said. “When I graduated from dental school, I didn’t have to worry about finding a job. I didn’t know where I would work, but I knew I’d be working! From a debt perspective, I only have my first year of dental school to pay off, versus a full four years.”

Photo of Michelle Engel
Michelle Engel
As a freshman at the University of Southern California, Michelle Engel knew she wanted to attend dental school. It took a bit longer to figure out how she was going to pay for it.

"I first heard about the military scholarship programs in USC’s pre-dental honor society during my sophomore year,” said Ms. Engel, now a first-year at the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine.

As a junior, she decided to apply for Navy’s Health Professional Scholarship Program, taking time to make sure life in the armed forces was what she really wanted.

"Yes, the financial benefit is amazing, but could I really see myself being in the military?” said Ms. Engel, who received guidance from a cousin who previously participated in the Army’s health scholarship program and spoke positively of it.  

"I didn't take the decision lightly,” she said. “It’s a 4-year binding commitment, but in the end, for me, it was worth it. The financial help, a set job after graduation and the ability to help others just made it an offer I couldn't refuse.

"Having the scholarship in school has helped to make my life a lot less stressful. I have to opportunity to take advantage of all of the resources available to me with out the concern of how I'm going to pay for it."

"I’m extremely happy with the decision I made and look forward to being able to serve our country,” said Ms. Engel.


Scholarships 101

To help spread the word about federal scholarships, ASDA will host a free webinar, Scholarships 101: Federal Programs for Aspiring Dental Students, Feb. 23 from 7-8:30 p.m. Dr. Hillary Key, third-year dental student Kyle Larsen and first-year dental student Michelle Engel, will share their experiences on scholarships and school during the webinar.

For information about the National Health Services Corp scholarships in 2016, visit the NHSC’s main webpage and search loans and scholarships. The NHSC program also offer loan repayments and scholarships for health care professionals, including dentists and dental hygienists that practice in Health Professional Shortage Areas.

The Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Program has one-, two-, three- and four-year scholarships that cover most educational costs and provide a stipend. For more information, contact a Health Professions Recruiter to discuss opportunities with the Army, Air Force and Navy.