Higher Education's Higher Costs

Mark Kirkland

Mark Kirkland, DDS, FACD

If you are a recent alum or student, or support a student in some way, this will come as no surprise: The cost of education is very expensive.

This is a huge issue for our students, and for students across the nation. Graduates are coming out with a staggering amount of debt - particularly dental students, who graduate with a higher debt load than their counterparts in other professional programs.

Part of that is due to the nature of dentistry. Students in most other health professions have clinical rotations in hospitals and other venues. Dental schools have their own clinical enterprise - hence the added cost.

The rising cost of education has become an increasingly common topic of discussion among national organizations, among dental school leadership groups, and certainly among student groups. It's an issue not just for dental schools, but throughout higher education. Students bring this issue to the attention of the UC Regents whenever possible.

It wasn't always this way. In the earlier years of the State's Master Plan for Higher Education, California residents could attend community colleges, the California State University system, even the University of California, for a minimal fee. Now, our students are graduating with staggering debt amounts that, in some parts of the U.S., equal the cost of a home.

The burden of this level of debt - which, for some, includes debt incurred during one's undergraduate education - is changing our profession. Fewer graduates are going directly into private practice; more are electing to specialize, or pursue some deferment of loans. Some of our students would prefer to practice in a rural environment (for lower pay), but they feel pressured to start generating money in a hurry - because those loans come due. Many of our students opt to work for corporations, to draw a paycheck right away, before going into private practice. The cost of education also impacts our school: Some of our graduates, who otherwise might elect to become part-time faculty members, simply can't afford to pursue academic careers.

How do we solve this? Loan-forgiveness programs are an option for some. Other students commit to the military, so they owe a year of service for each year of dental school education. One of the things implemented by our former dean, Dr. Featherstone, was the Dean's Scholarship for Opportunity. Funding support for these scholarships has grown significantly over the last few years. There are other programs as well, but none address the rising cost of education.

Industry organizations like ADEA and the ADA are looking into this dilemma. None of us want dentistry to become an elitist profession; we want it to be a profession that is still accessible to anyone who has the interest, desire and aptitude.

It's encouraging to see so many undergraduates who are still interested in dentistry as a career. The annual Impressions Undergraduate Dental Conference, sponsored by our Student National Dental Association chapter, attests to this. Last month's conference - now in its 11th year - was at capacity, drawing students from throughout Northern California.

In U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings of the most satisfying professions, dentistry is often at or near the top of the list. I couldn't agree more. It's a very rewarding profession. Once we accept someone into the School of Dentistry, we want that for them as well. Our students truly are exceptional, and we want to set them on the path to being good representatives of our profession. We want them to complete their education and go on to have successful, satisfying careers. It would be a shame to let education cost stand in the way.

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