Newly minted vets, dentists facing debt that far exceeds earnings

The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted several types of professional degree programs that tend to produce graduates with outsized debt burdens and relatively modest initial salaries. Pointing specifically to dentistry, veterinary medicine, chiropractic, physical therapy, and optometry programs, the Journal cautions that the affordability gap is “threatening the outlook for fields that provide essential public services.”

Under a federal loan program called Grad Plus, students enrolled in professional programs can take on loans for all their academic and living expenses. However, experts typically recommend that students not borrow more in educational loans than they can expect to earn in a single year.

Debt-earnings imbalance across many programs

Using newly available data from the U.S. Department of Education, the Journal calculated that 76 percent of the 500 professional degree programs studied left recent grads with higher debt loads than the amount of their earnings two years later. In contrast, around 22 percent and 11 percent of master’s and bachelor’s degree programs, respectively, had that imbalance.

For every single veterinary, dentistry, and chiropractic medicine professional program listed, graduates’ median debt loads exceeded their median earnings two years after graduation:

  • As of 2020, the average veterinary student graduated with nearly $179,000 in debt. Veterinarians that year earned a median $99,000.
  • The average dental school graduate in 2020 owed almost $305,000; the median annual earnings for a dentist were $164,000.
  • Graduates of professional or doctoral chiropractic programs, who earned a median $71,000 in 2020, had some of the largest debt-income imbalances: all 14 programs studied left students with median debt that was at least triple median earnings.

Exacerbating shortages in rural, lower-income communities

Those debt burdens are harming not only individual graduates’ long-term financial outlook but also the supply of those professionals in rural and lower-income communities. Debt is forcing many graduates to seek out higher-paying positions in wealthier suburbs, creating growing provider gaps in other regions.

Some colleges and universities are working to close the debt-earnings gap. Andrew Hoffman, dean of the veterinary school at the University of Pennsylvania—where students graduate with median debt of $182,000 and have median income of $76,000 two years later—says the school is focused on limiting tuition increases and offering more need-based scholarships.

Leaders at Greenville, North Carolina-based East Carolina University, a public institution, say they have been intentional about bringing their dentistry students’ costs and earnings in line. Graduates have median debt around $131,000 and median income around $120,000.

The university’s program was created specifically to train dentists committed to serving North Carolina’s rural and low-income communities. “It didn’t happen by accident,” said Gregory Chadwick, the program’s dean, adding that students “have to have debt that’s manageable to go out to those areas.”

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