Dentists share student debt stories, urge lawmakers to reauthorize Higher Education Act
June 13, 2019
— “Can you imagine starting out your career owing more than you might pay for a house?”
Those were the words of Dr. Raymond Jarvis, a dentist from Shreveport, Louisiana, in his statement for the record to the House Committee on Small Business and its June 12 hearing, The Doctor is Out. Rising Student Loan Debt and the Decline of the Small Medical Practice.
Dr. Jarvis, who is chair of the ADA’s New Dentist Committee, submitted this testimony on behalf of the ADA about the impact educational debt has on small dental practices. He also discussed the impact that student debt has on new dentists regarding their early career decisions and life choices.
In 2017, 85% of all dental students graduated with an average of $287,000 in student loans, according to the American Dental Education Association.
“To put this in perspective [in 2019], these same students would have graduated in 1975 owing nearly $63,000,” Dr. Jarvis wrote, and “1985 graduates would have left school owing more than $126,000. And 1995 graduates would have been starting their careers owing almost $179,000, just in student loans.”
Dr. Lauren Wiese, an ADA member and orthodontics resident at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, testified on behalf of the American Association of Orthodontists.“Dental residencies are unlike medical residencies in that the majority of dental residencies are tuition-based,” Dr. Wiese told the committee, pointing out that orthodontists, on average, graduate with more than $428,000 in debt, according to an AAO member survey.
Dr. Jarvis said he graduated with more than $180,000 in debt, less than many of his peers, and that he was fortunate to find a dentist with an established practice that could take him on as a partner.
“I certainly bring home enough income to support my business and student loans, but that has only become comfortably manageable in the past few years,” he said. “Many of my colleagues struggle with paying off their student loans. For many of us, our student loan debt levels hold us back from taking the leap into small practice ownership.”
Dr. Wiese agreed and said her debt continues to impact future decisions — such as where she and her husband will live, when they will begin to start a family, and her husband’s future career plans.
“To consider taking on additional debt to purchase or start a practice is almost inconceivable and I am unsure whether any banks would feel comfortable in lending to someone with so much debt already,” said Dr. Wiese, who added she is “terrified to face paying back” the more than $411,000 she owes.
In his statement, Dr. Jarvis urged lawmakers to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, and to include in that reauthorization policies that would lower the interest rates on federal student loans and allow dentists and medical residents to defer the accrual of interest on their federal student loans during residencies.
“Reducing a new dentist’s early career debt, even marginally, can be a sound economic investment. One dental practice contributes more than $1.7 million dollars to the economy, and the profession overall contributes over $272 billion,” concluded Dr. Jarvis, citing data from the ADA Health Institute. “The faster you can move a practice to the point of needing to hire new workers, the faster the economy will grow. That is why it is so important for Congress to get this financial crisis under control.”
In addition to Dr. Jarvis’ statement, three other current and former New Dentist Committee members shared personal stories on how their student debt affected their career choices: Drs. Brooke Fukuoka, Daniel W. Hall and Lindsey Yates.
In her case, Dr. Fukuoka dreamed about treating patients with special needs. But after graduating with more than $200,000 in debt, she was unable to find a practice model that would successfully allow her to do that and pay back her loans. She’s currently working at a health center that enables her to treat special needs patients and she is also balancing a part-time practice that allows her treat this population, but she recently became unqualified for loan repayment because she wasn’t working enough hours at the health center.
“People who have special needs are the most underserved people in our community,” she wrote. “and there are people like me who want to serve them but first we have to climb out from under a mountain of debt.”
Dr. Hall graduated with more than $400,000 in debt and has diligently been working on that debt for the last four years. But he still owes more than $375,000. As a rural practitioner in South Carolina, his debt will make it difficult for him to improve or update his office for his patients. It’s also delayed he and his wife having children.
“I am not asking for anything for free,” he said. “I value the American dream and the hard work it takes to improve your station in life. What I and others are asking for is sensible student loan reform that lessens the burden on those who seek to improve themselves and their communities through higher education.”
Dr. Yates, a public health dentist and educator, had zero debt from undergrad and graduated with $170,000 in dental student debt. She spent six years working at a health center in Chicago and teaching part-time at a local hospital. She loved the work but despite working in public service, didn’t meet the requirements for loan forgiveness. Because of her debt, she and her husband put off having children and buying a home. When they did have a child, they delayed having a second. Eventually they chose to relocate to Colorado, which has a lower cost of living, and has allowed her to continue treating underserved populations.
“It only took uprooting my family from a city we loved and moving across the country to make it work. This is the true effect that high tuition costs and high interest rates for student loans have on people's lives,” Dr. Yates concluded. “I make the joke, although it is really not funny at all, that I will be done paying back my loans when I turn 55 years old, and then I will finally have money to save for retirement. How is it that a dentist and a business professional, both working full-time, and their one young son, can't make it work financially in an American city? If we can't, who can?”