Dental School Loan Forgiveness: What It Is and How You Can Get It

Posted by Frank Gogol

Dental students have been hit particularly hard by the student loan crisis, graduating with an average dental school debt of $287,331 in 2017, according to the American Dental Education Association. With such significant debts, even those who establish themselves quickly in the field and earn good compensation can find keeping up with their payments difficult.

You can get out from under your student debt quickly by following certain steps, though, and one of the most effective is student loan forgiveness. This article provides a blueprint for managing and repaying dental school debt, and details how you can qualify for student loan forgiveness.

The Cost of Dental School

Becoming a dentist requires eight years of schooling: a 4-year Bachelor’s degree, and 4 years in an accredited dental school. Tuition at public dental schools was an average of $35,917 in the year 2016-2017, while private school tuition averaged $67,399. As tuition continues to rise, covering eight years of tuition out of pocket has become less feasible for most students, so many rely on student loans. Average dental school debt has doubled in the past 20 years, with 80% of dental school graduates leaving university with over $100,000 in student debt, and with 30% leaving with over $300,000 of debt.

The exorbitant cost of obtaining a dental license leaves many playing catch-up for years or even decades, but there are various repayment programs and student loan forgiveness programs that can help you pay off your debt. Read about the steps you can take in the following sections.

4 Tips for Paying Back Dental School Debt

You can lessen your debt burden and expedite the repayment process, or even avoid student debt entirely, by investigating government programs that offer financial assistance, refinancing your loans, or budgeting responsibly.

1. Make Payments on Your Loans during School

Paying off your dental school loans while you are in school is an excellent way to make a dent in your future interest payments. Once interest starts accruing, the overall cost of your loans rises dramatically. So even if you can only contribute small amounts, each dollar that goes towards the principal while you’re in school can save you two dollars or more in interest after you graduate.

You can get a part-time job, enlist help from parents or relatives, or use some of your savings. Plan your budget so you can set aside a certain amount each month that will go towards your loans.

2. Apply for the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Scholarship

The National Health Service Corps offers a full-ride scholarship for students currently attending dental school if applicants agree to work for at least two years in a medically underserved area (MUA) after graduation. This scholarship covers tuition, fees, peripheral costs of education like textbooks, and a stipend for basic living expenses.

3. Apply for the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Loan Repayment Program

The NHSC Loan Repayment Program is similar to the NHSC scholarship but provides postgraduates with financial assistance in paying off their loans. Only practicing, licensed dentists who are employed at an NHSC-approved site can qualify, but 41% of applicants are accepted. So if you meet the criteria, applying is a simple step that has a good chance of paying substantial dividends. Dentists who are accepted can receive as much as $50,000 in funds for loan repayment, in exchange for a two-year stint in a medically underserved area.

4. Plan to Refinance Your Loans

Refinancing your loans, which involves consolidating your loans into a single term and rate with a single lender often lands you a lower interest rate and simpler terms of repayment. If you have good credit and can get a lower interest rate, refinancing is a simple way that you can reduce interest payments and pay off your debt quicker.

First, investigate the conditions and requirements of different lenders and see if you qualify. If you find lenders with conditions that you can meet, then use their online rate estimators to get an idea of the rates you would get so you can determine whether or not refinancing is worthwhile.

International students can have a difficult time qualifying for refinancing since they often lack a credit history, but there are lenders that cater specifically to international students.

How to Manage Your Dental School Debt

If you have already graduated and taken out substantial loans, the difficulty becomes in knowing how to pay off dental school debt. Income-based repayment and refinancing are two of the best options for managing your debt and can help ensure that you don’t fall behind on your payments.

Sign Up for Income-Based Repayment

Student debt-holders are typically put on a 10-year Standard Repayment Plan, but if your monthly payments are too high you can sign up for the following income-based repayment programs:

  • Pay As You Earn
  • Revised Pay As You Earn
  • Income-Based Repayment
  • Income-Contingent Repayment

These programs differ in their specific eligibility requirements and benefits, but each involves tying your monthly payments to a certain percentage of your income and forgiving whatever debt is left over at the end of your loan term.

Refinance Your Medical School Loans

If you are overwhelmed by your student loan debt, or if you have multiple loans with multiple payments each month and are struggling to keep track of them, refinancing can be helpful. By consolidating your loans into a single loan with a single payment, you can make budgeting much easier and can even get a lower interest rate.

Borrowers in special circumstances, for instance, students in the US on a visa, should look for lenders who consider factors besides credit history like education and future earning potential.

Student Loan Forgiveness for Doctors

Student loan forgiveness is one of the most appealing possibilities for reducing or eliminating student loan debt, though you must qualify for certain programs and meet all of their eligibility requirements.

Perkins Loan Cancellation Program

Licensed medical technicians, including dentists and dental hygienists, can have their Perkins loans forgiven if they borrowed before the 2016 cancellation of the Perkins program. The amount of debt that is forgiven is tied to the duration you have been employed full-time: 15% is forgiven after 1-2 years of employment, 20% is forgiven after 2-3 years of employment, and 30% is forgiven after 5 years of employment.

Public Student Loan Forgiveness for Dentists (PSLF)

Dental school graduates working for a nonprofit or public service agency are eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which forgives your remaining student loan balance after 10 years of payment. Any dental practitioner with full-time employment (defined as 30+ hours) can qualify. However, you must have taken out Direct Loans that you have made payments on after 2007, and you must have made 120 consecutive payments on these loans. If you do qualify, you won’t have to pay taxes on the loan amounts that are forgiven.

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The best way you can figure out how to pay off dental school loans is by exploring the various forgiveness, refinancing, and repayment options listed above to see which ones apply to your circumstances. If you are not eligible for any programs that would reduce or eliminate your debt, the next step is refinancing and budgeting. With responsible financial management and resourcefulness, you can get your debt under control regardless of which programs you qualify for.

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