Surviving in the sea of state and federal loan repayment options: Don’t go it alone

Welcome to Pathways to Practice. In this monthly column, we will share the mindsets, pathways, and strategies harnessed by today’s top new dentists. The goal is not only to show what’s possible, but to reveal why one path may be better for you—and how to make it happen.

Erinne Kennedy, DMD, MPH

Welcome to Pathways to Practice. In this monthly column, we will share the mindsets, pathways, and strategies harnessed by today’s top new dentists. The goal is not only to show what’s possible, but to reveal why one path may be better for you—and how to make it happen.

Navigating through student loan forgiveness repayment programs is a stressful and tedious challenge, full of misinformation and myths. This article debunks a few common myths, illustrates the perils of expecting a newly graduated dentist—like me—to plot a course through the system alone, and describes a more supportive and rational approach that uses a dedicated navigator.

There are many classifications of loan forgiveness, including income-driven repayment programs, public service loan forgiveness (PSLF), the Army, Navy, and Air Force Dental Corps Programs, and five federal and 50 state repayment programs.1,2

I graduated from dental school with the understanding that you could only receive one form of loan repayment at a time. Not true. You can qualify at the state and federal levels at the same time in many programs. Be sure to check the fine print. As long as the programs allow it, you can receive federal and state funding simultaneously.

The first thing I learned is that you shouldn’t succumb to “no.” When I started working at a local federally qualified health center, I heard the word “no” in the context of student loan forgiveness programs one too many times. I had a busy schedule and felt overwhelmed by the repayment process, and I just gave up. Learn from my mistakes. Seek help until you find the program that tells you “yes!”

What I learned while attempting to self-navigate through this process is that this system is very challenged. The profession of dentistry claims that providing these student loan forgiveness programs will increase workforce diversity and improve access to care.3 Many students enter dental school with the intent to utilize these repayment programs after graduation. But if receiving these resources is just as cumbersome as navigating dental school or the dental insurance landscape, are we really increasing diversity and improving access? For those who need it and are relying on these services when they apply for dental school, probably not.

New dentists are not expert loan repayment strategists; we rely on financial advisors or human resources support at our institutions for guidance. But the reliability of these various advisors can vary widely. They are not experts either, and may not understand the application process or documentation. Programs come and go as funding or eligibility guidelines change. If you have tried to access these programs, you know how unpredictable the process can be.

New dentists need to advocate for a national resource that will provide support, advice, and improve the process for enrolling in loan repayment programs. As we learned from health care, it is not enough to provide the program—you have to ensure access to it.

A few months ago, I was chatting with a liaison through the American Dental Education Association, tossing around this idea of having a skilled navigator to help graduates successfully access loan repayment plans. The navigator would be able to help students reduce their financial burden by accessing various loan repayment programs. The navigator would also benefit organized dentistry groups by being able to track graduates to learn where they settle, their later career choices, and other important data. Third, better access to loan repayment programs would benefit the public by potentially increasing safety-net providers and access to care, and improving workforce diversity.

I challenge you today—look into the references at the end of this article. See where you can benefit from a student loan forgiveness program, and let the leaders of our profession know that their help is desperately needed by you and your fellow new dentists who should not lose out, as I did, by going it alone.

References

1. Lockert M. Ultimate student loan repayment guide for dentists. http://studentloanhero.com/featured/repayment-student-loan-forgiveness-for-dentists-ultimate-guide/. Updated April 17, 2017. Accessed February 5, 2018.

2. State and federal loan forgiveness programs. American Dental Educational Association website. http://www.adea.org/advocacy/state/loan-forgiveness-programs.aspx.

3. Mertz EA, Wides CD, Kottek AM, Calvo JM, Gates PE. Underrepresented minority dentists: quantifying their numbers and characterizing the communities they serve. Health Aff (Millwood). 2016;35(12):2190-2199. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2016.1122.

Erinne Kennedy, DMD, MPH, graduated from the Nova Southeastern College of Dental Medicine in 2015. Currently, she is a blogger and speaker for IgniteDDS. Also, she is pursuing a dental public health specialty, a master’s in dental education at Harvard School of Dental Medicine, and serves as an interim director at a local health center in Boston, Massachusetts. Contact her at (937) 539-0629 or erinne.kennedy@ignitedds.com.

Author’s note: To connect with igniteDDS, visit ignitedds.com.

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