Tackling student debt | American Dental Association

Tackling student debt

Trio shares experiences on paying off, managing dental school loans

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The financial cost of becoming a dentist can be daunting.

The American Dental Education Association estimates the average debt per dental school graduate in 2020 was $304,824.

Student loans can affect new graduates differently, just as the options to scaling that mountain of debt can also vary — from private refinancing options to federal loan repayment programs. The New Dentist News spoke with three new dentists on how they’re managing their student loans and if they have, if any, learned lessons to offer others from their financial journey.

Photo of Dr. Kwong
Dr. Kwong

Landis Kwong, D.M.D.

Longview, Washington

Despite having some financial help from her family, Dr. Kwong still graduated from Oregon Health & Science University School of Dentistry in 2020 with $178,000 in student loans.

“That’s about half of the national average,” she said. “So I’m really fortunate, which is crazy to think about.”

But before she began dental school, Dr. Kwong said she already knew she wanted to go into public health.

“A big passion of mine is to provide care to underserved Asian and Asian-American communities,” she said. “I figure, I might as well take advantage of federal programs that help with student loans.”

Dr. Kwong learned, from another dental student, about the National Health Service Corps, specifically NHSC Students to Service Loan Repayment Program. The idea: if Dr. Kwong commits three years in working in a federally qualified health center, NHSC will provide $120,000 towards her student loans, awarded over four years.

Dr. Kwong applied for the program in her fourth year of dental school. Today, she practices in a community clinic in Longview, Washington, treating lower income patients who don’t have insurance or are on Medicaid. She started in 2021 and will practice in community clinics until 2024.

Dr. Kwong said she would encourage others, including those who may not have long term plans to remain in public health, to consider NHSC’s various loan repayment options. She added that if a clinic isn’t a good fit, dentists aren’t locked in. They can find another qualified location anywhere in the country to continue their commitment in the program.

“Three years isn’t very long, considering how long many of us plan on practicing dentistry,” she said. “For new dentists, serving in community clinics can also give you new perspectives and valuable experiences.”

Photo of Dr. Kerst
Dr. Kerst

Jeffrey Kerst, D.D.S.

Shreveport, Louisiana

Dr. Kerst is the first to acknowledge that his approach to his student loans may not be the right plan for everyone.

“But it’s the right plan for us,” he said, referring to himself and his wife, Allison Kerst, D.D.S.

For his part, Dr. Jeffrey Kerst graduated from Louisiana State University School of Dentistry in 2019 with about $275,000 in student loans.

While others may focus first on rapidly paying off their student debt, the couple had a different philosophy.

Dr. Kerst’s 10-year plan involved initially paying only the minimum on his student loans, on an income-based repayment, and instead focus on saving enough money to secure a loan that would allow him to buy a dental practice as soon as possible.

The plan also included building up an emergency fund, contributing the maximum to retirement accounts and paying off high-interest debts.

Dr. Kerst started as an associate dentist after graduating from dental school. Today, as of January, he’s the proud owner of a dental practice in Shreveport, Louisiana.

“What we did after dental school was crunch the numbers,” said Dr. Kerst, adding he had help form his dad, who consults others on finances. “What we figured out was, based on our goals, it was better for us to get into practice ownership faster and increase our income before tackling our student loans.”

Currently, Dr. Kerst still has about $240,000 left of student loans but considers himself “far ahead of schedule” in his financial journey.

With his main goal of becoming a practice owner already achieved, he can now focus on aggressively paying off his student debt.

“I know it’s a very unusual plan and it won’t work for most people,” he said. “But I’d say that if you know where you want to be, then consider all of your options and be disciplined with your goals. Follow the numbers. Math never lies.”

For those who want to learn more about achieving financial success, Dr. Kerst suggested two books that has helped him: “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” by Richard H. Thaler, Ph.D.; and “The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy” by Thomas J. Stanley, Ph.D., and William D. Danko, Ph.D.

Photo of Dr. Schuiteman
Dr. Schuiteman

Logan Schuiteman, D.M.D.

Appleton, Wisconsin

Dr. Schuiteman knows most new dentists won’t be able to relate to her experience.

She left the University of Louisville School of Dentistry in 2018 with zero student loans.

But maybe — just maybe — those who have younger family members or who are mentoring someone interested in dentistry can help future dentists avoid the burden of student debt.

It was during undergrad that Dr. Schuiteman learned of the National Health Service Corps Scholarship program from her prehealth counselor. While competitive, Dr. Schuiteman said that if she was chosen, four years of dental school tuition (plus a monthly stipend) would be covered in exchange for four years of service in an underserved area after graduation.

“If I don’t do that, then I would have to pay it all back,” she said. 

The application was only a few pages long. It included three one-page essays and letters of recommendation. 

“It was a fairly easy process but very competitive,” she said.

Today, Dr. Schuiteman is in her fourth year of her commitment, working at a federally qualified health center in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Dr. Schuiteman said new dentists should encourage the next generation — whether they want to stay in public health or not — to consider applying for the scholarship.

“Yes, when working in a community health center, your salary is typically less,” she said. “But you don’t have any student loans, so financially, you can actually get ahead. Plus, you’re helping patients who otherwise would not have gotten help and hone your skills.”

When her commitment ends this fall, Dr. Schuiteman said her options are wide open. She’s thinking of finding an associateship, possibly in a private practice where she can utilize different skills, such as cosmetic dentistry.

“Whatever the future holds,” she said. “I don’t feel financially strapped.”

Editor’s note: Read more financial journey stories throughout March on the New Dentist News. For more information on ADA debt resources, visit ADA.org/mydebt.