Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

WSJ: Some Professional Degrees Leave Students With High Debt But Without High Salaries

Wall Street Journal, Some Professional Degrees Leave Students With High Debt but Without High Salaries:

Professional degrees like dentistry and veterinary medicine are leaving many students with immense college debt, threatening the outlook for fields that provide essential public services, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of federal data.

The culprits span graduate programs at big state schools, for-profit colleges and some of the U.S.’s elite private universities. ...

In addition to programs for veterinarians and dentists, chiropractic medicine, physical therapy and optometry produced graduates with some of the worst combinations of high debt and modest beginning paychecks, according to newly released data from the U.S. Department of Education. ... In three popular fields—chiropractic medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine—every professional program with available data had median debt loads that topped median earnings two years after graduation, the latest data available. 


Rising student debt is doing more than harming individual borrowers, according to some professional associations and professors. It is also hurting the occupations the borrowers are entering. They cited data showing that rural areas are short of dentists, veterinarians and other health providers, in part because pay is generally lower there and they suspect heavily indebted grads feel compelled to seek out higher paying jobs, often in affluent suburbs.

Roughly 76% of professional programs left recent students with higher debt loads at graduation than earnings two years later, the Journal’s analysis of nearly 500 programs classified as professional degrees found. That is worse than other degree types: About 22% of master’s programs in the data had debt loads that high and 11% of bachelor’s programs.

The Journal’s analysis of professional programs excluded medical school degrees. That is because graduates seeking licenses to practice medicine are required to complete residencies that are often low paid. ...

Outside of medicine, residencies that could temporarily depress earnings are mostly optional. Even so, the median debt loads for many professional programs—often topping $200,000—were out of line with what those fields pay. Nationwide, veterinarians in 2020 earned a median $99,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Dentists earned a median $164,000 and chiropractors just $71,000.

Debt counselors caution students against taking out educational loans that exceed a single year of expected earnings due to the difficulty of repayment. Under current loan rules, many balances that cannot be repaid within 20- to 25-year periods will be shifted onto taxpayers through federal loan forgiveness.

For recent graduates of dentistry programs, the gap between debt and income was especially large for alumni of two elite private universities: the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and New York University in New York City. In each case, the median debt was more than four times as much as median earnings.

NYU, which says it educates nearly 10% of the nation’s dentists, tells current students they should expect to spend more than $572,000 for its four-year program, including living expenses. Federal data showed NYU dentistry students who graduated in the 2015 and 2016 classes had median debt of about $349,000 and, two years later, median earnings of about $82,000.

USC graduates included in the data had median debt of nearly $398,000 and median earnings of about $91,000. Current USC students pursuing a doctor of dental surgery degree can expect to spend nearly $546,000 to complete the program, including living expenses, according to the university.

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