According to the American Dental Association, the average total cost to attend dental school for four years is $197,108 for in-state tuition and $266,383 for out-of-state. With only 66 accredited schools spread throughout 35 U.S. states, finding a school near you could be challenging.
But graduates of dental school often lead long and fulfilling careers. The U.S. Bureau for Labor Statistics expects the field of dentistry to grow by over 7% between 2018 and 2028 (faster than most) and many dentists report having a better work-life balance than other health professions.
Going to dental school can be a great choice, especially if you enjoy helping people take care of their smiles. You just have to figure out how to pay for your education, so let’s take a look at all of the ways available to you to help pay for dental school.
Look for Ways to Keep Dental School Costs Down
One of the best ways to pay for dental school is to make sure you are taking the right undergraduate classes. Like most graduate programs, dental schools have prerequisites; completing these courses as an undergraduate can save you both time and money on your dental school tuition. While prerequisites are not uniform, most schools require you to have earned several credits in biology, chemistry, and physics and suggest classes in anatomy, business, and English. Research different dental schools to find out which specific courses they require. Make a list of the most common prerequisites to understand what courses you’ll need to take before applying to dental school.
You can also save by narrowing down your school selection. Applying to multiple dental schools can add up quickly. Application fees depend on the number of dental schools you apply to. According to the American Dental Education Association (ADEA), it costs $251 to apply to your first dental school and $108 for each additional school. Some dental schools also have additional fees, so be sure to check before submitting your application. Do your research and make sure you’re applying to schools you have a good chance of getting into, that are near where you plan to live, and you can afford to attend.
You can also save on the Dental Admission Test (DAT), a standardized test all dental school applicants are required to take. The test costs $475, but there is a partial fee waiver that covers 50% of the costs if you demonstrate financial hardship.
Establish a Budget
Managing your money while in graduate school is key. While some of your undergrad friends might be moving on to professional jobs, you will want to try to maintain a frugal lifestyle while paying for dental school. That means limiting the times you dine out, preparing food at home more often, and potentially having roommates. You’ll have a student ID so you can take advantage of discounts and special offers exclusive to students. Some businesses may have student discounts that are not advertised, so it doesn’t hurt to ask.
While your schoolwork will keep you busy, some dental students work part-time to help cover additional costs. Some dental schools hire teaching assistants or research assistants so be sure to ask at your institution. You may also qualify for the federal work-study program if your school participates in the program. You can apply for work-study by completing the FAFSA.
Look for Dental School Scholarships and Grants
Looking for scholarships and grants – money you don’t have to repay – is an important part of paying for dental school. Make sure to kick off your search early and stick with it. You may get a scholarship only after your second or third attempt, or you may discover new scholarships that could help you keep your costs down. Here are a few places to start your search.
- Some universities offer grants and scholarships. For example, Penn Dental Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has four need-based grants and four merit-based scholarships for incoming freshmen and Harvard School of Dental Medicine has over 20 scholarship opportunities. Many schools will automatically consider all who apply for admission, but others require a separate application. Be sure to check the school’s website for a list of available grants and scholarships and how to apply.
- Check out third-party organizations and companies. Professional dental organizations as well as businesses in the industry offer scholarships and grants to dental school students. The American Dental Association has both need- and merit-based programs for aspiring dentists, the American Dental Education Association has scholarships and fellowships, and the American Student Dental Association maintains a list of third-party scholarships for current dental students. And keep an eye on state and local organizations, for example, the California Dental Association offers scholarships to up and coming dentists.
- The U.S. government also has scholarships for dental students. The federal government has scholarship programs in place for students who wish to practice in high need areas. For example, the National Health Service Corps Scholarship (open to all second and third-year students pursuing primary healthcare degrees) provides a full-ride scholarship to students who agree to work in under-served communities. And if you enlist in the Army, you may be eligible for one of the Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarships to have your entire dental school tuition paid for in return for military service.
- Dental school scholarships for minorities. There are scholarship and grant opportunities for minority students. For example, there are several scholarships from the Hispanic Dental Association and the National Dental Association, which promotes oral health among people of color.
- Use scholarship search engines. You may qualify for general graduate school scholarships, too. So be sure to look for opportunities on sites like Scholarships.com and Fastweb.com
Federal Student Loans for Dental School
Anyone who needs help paying for school should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as soon as it becomes available every October. Colleges use this form to decide what kind of financial aid you qualify for, including scholarships and grants, work-study, and federal loans.
The two most common loans you can use to pay for dental school are Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans (also called Stafford Loans) and Federal Direct Graduate PLUS loans. Stafford loans are available to both undergraduate and graduate students and come with a low fixed interest rate
Graduate PLUS loans are different than Stafford loans in that they require borrowers to have good credit or a cosigner that does (cosigners on federal loans may be referred to as endorsers). Like Stafford loans, they come with a fixed rate, but that rate is often higher than other federal loans.
So, it makes sense to get the Stafford loan first and then decide if you need a PLUS loan.
Use our student loan calculator to estimate what your federal student loans could cost.
Private Student Loans to Pay for Dental School
Private student loans are issued by banks and other private lenders. You can choose either fixed or variable interest rates and can be used to help pay for tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, as well as school-related expenses. There are several times when it makes sense to use a private student loan to help pay for dental school.
- To close a funding gap. If you still need financial assistance after receiving federal student loans, grants, and scholarships, a private student loan can help fill in the gap.
- An unexpected change in expenses. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, like if your class schedule prohibits you from working. Taking out a private student loan can make more financial sense than, say, using a high-interest credit card to pay for education-related expenses. Be sure to shop around for the best rates.
- You have great credit or can find a cosigner that does. Credit history is one of the main ways private lenders determine your interest rate. If you have good credit, you may qualify for a low rate. While federal student loans tend to be less expensive than private student loans, there are exceptions. For example, the interest rate on the federal grad PLUS loan can sometimes be higher than for a private student loan, especially if you or your cosigner have an excellent credit score.
Before taking out a student loan it is important to have a strategy to pay it back. While these loans usually come with a 6-month student loan grace period once you graduate, you will still be charged interest during this time. Paying a small amount while in school can help lower the overall cost of the loan when you aren’t required to make payments.
Some private lenders, such as College Ave, have flexible dental school loans designed to meet the needs of aspiring dentists. These loans have a variety of interest rates and loan repayment options.
When using student loans to pay for tuition, rent, and other expenses, it’s easy to forget that you’re living on money you’ll have to repay. Instead of borrowing the maximum, try to take out only what you need.
Learn more about private student loans for dental school.
Service-based Loan Forgiveness Programs
There are various programs in place to help dental school students pay for student loans in return for service. Unlike service-based scholarships, which help pay for your school directly, service-based loan forgiveness programs help you repay any federal or private student loans you may have taken out to pay for your education. Here are a few.
National Health Service Corps for Dentistry
The National Health Service Corps loan repayment program pays up to $50,000 of loans for students who commit to serving at least two years in a specific Health Professional Shortage Area. Students must commit for at least two years with a maximum term of four years.
Dental School State Loan Repayment Programs
Some states have loan repayment programs for dental graduates working in low-income or underserved areas. Many require a two or three-year stint before applicants are eligible for partial loan forgiveness. The American Dental Association has compiled a list of these state programs.
Military Loan Repayment Programs for Dentists
Each branch of the U.S. military offers loan forgiveness for aspiring dentists. One program in the Army – the Active Duty Health Profession Loan Repayment Program – offers up to $40,000 per year for up to three years to pay down student debt. Another – the Healthcare Professionals Loan Repayment Program – offers up to $50,000 to repay your student loans.
Additional Dental School Loan Repayment Options
If you’re not eligible for the loan forgiveness programs, it’s important to have a student loan repayment strategy in place.
If you took out federal student loans and are having trouble making payments, look into income-based repayment plans, which adjust your payments according to your income. If you also work in the non-profit sector, you could qualify for a public service loan forgiveness program, which could forgive your loans after you make 120 qualifying payments.
And you can consider refinancing your student loans as a way to help manage your monthly payment or lower your interest rate. If your credit score improved since you first took out the loan – and this is the case for many students when they first start working – you may qualify for a lower interest rate through refinancing. Just be careful whenever refinancing federal student loans as you will lose some benefits such as income-based repayment.
Paying for dental school can be difficult but it is not impossible. Make sure you take the right undergraduate courses and look for as much free money as you can. If you need to take out student loans, be sure to have a plan to repay them. Finally, when all the hard work pays off, it can lead to a lifetime of smiles for you and your future patients.