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Letters: Student debt solutions

June 06, 2016 In a letter published on April 18, Dr. John W. Sparkman of Amarillo, Texas, offered this advice for dental students graduating with large amounts of debt: “Get a job.” This suggestion is an oversimplification of a complex issue and unfairly represents today’s dental students and new dentists.

Dental school tuition has increased significantly since Dr. Sparkman graduated in 1976. In the past 15 years, the cost of dental school has far outpaced inflation and nearly doubled. The reason for this increase in tuition, and therefore an increase in the average student loan debt of graduating dental students, is mostly due to the way dental schools are funded.

In 1975, according to the National Academy of Sciences, private and public schools received nearly 65 percent of their total revenue from federal and state funds. At that time, the tuition at dental schools accounted for less than 17 percent of total revenue.

Federal and state funding was drastically reduced during the 2007-09 recession. As these funds depleted, the burden of funding dental school was transferred to students through higher tuition and fees. According to the ADA Health Policy Institute, student tuition and fees accounted for more than 37 percent of dental school revenue in 2014. State and local support has dropped to roughly 11 percent. Federal funding has fallen below 1 percent.

The American Dental Education Association reports that the average amount of educational debt for 2015 dental school graduates was $262,364. Many of these students do have jobs. Some have two. But minimum wage can’t keep pace with the rise in dental tuition costs. There are not enough hours in a day to work off this amount of debt while also attending dental school.

Dr. Sparkman may be right that getting a job is “part of the solution.” This is why you’ll find content on personal finance in all of the American Student Dental Association’s publications and at our national meetings. But that part of the solution doesn’t go nearly as far today as it did 40 years ago.

Dental student debt should concern more than just dental students. That’s why both ASDA and the ADA lobbied bills on the issue this year. Sure, student loan reform would personally benefit each and every one of us, but reform would also affect all of dental education. We want dental school to be accessible to a diverse applicant pool. We want dentistry to remain one of the best career options for graduates. Student debt reform is as much about protecting the profession as it is about minimizing our own loan payments.

Sohaib Soliman
President, American
Student Dental Association

Editor’s note: The ADA News has received numerous letters to the editor in response to Dr. Sparkman’s letter. We thank the readers who took the time to write in, but chose the ASDA letter because it encapsulates the essence of what many members wrote in their letters.