When will the dental school applicant bubble burst? A recent article in the New York Times (Jan 31, 2013) caught my eye. The first sentence read: “Law school applications are headed for a 30-year low, reflecting increased concern over soaring tuition, crushing student debt and diminishing prospects of lucrative employment upon graduation.” Could we soon be substituting “Dental” for “Law” and see the recently opened private dental schools threatened with mediocrity or even extinction?
Since 2006, dental school applicant numbers in the US have been relatively stable—but how long will it last? After reaching an all-time high of 13,742 applicants in the US in 2007, the applicant numbers are now trending down and could drop under 12,000 this year. Meanwhile, new schools continue to open at a rapid rate (three more expected to open in 2013), and established schools are on a trend of increasing class sizes (Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona, for example, is increasing class size from 110 to 140 this year—a giant leap by anyone’s scale).
Should we be concerned? When 13,742 applicants applied for 4,618 positions as dental students in 2007, the year Midwestern chose its inaugural class, it and most schools could cherry-pick applicants at a 3:1 ratio of applicant to matriculant. Confusingly, since individual applicants apply to multiple schools, the number of applicants always seems much higher than it really is, with an individual school in any one year seeing perhaps over 3,000 applications to their program. But the number of applications must not be confused with available applicants. Still, 3:1 is a healthy applicant pool.
As available slots go up (5,311 in 2011 and certainly over 6,000 in 2013) while applicant numbers go down, the ratio of applicant number to available positions will drop already this year to about 2:1, or a little less than two applicants for every available position—still acceptable, but increasingly concerning. If we get a crash in dental applications, as is distinctly possible with continually escalating tuition costs and graduates burdened with hard-to-manage debt loads, applicant numbers could reach par with available positions, and some schools will be scrambling to fill slots with marginal applicants as the best schools snap up the best of the bunch.
Between 1986 and 2001, seven US dental schools closed—all were private or private with partial state support. Since 1997, nine new private schools have opened, with three more schools (one public) slated to open this year and at least one more private school by 2015.
The average US dental school tuition and fees have almost doubled since 2000. The average debt among graduating dentists is now well over $200,000, and for graduates of private schools is over $250,000, with more than 3% bearing debts of over $400,000! One wonders what a struggle it will be for some of these colleagues with young families demanding a nice home and new cars, while a new office and equipment is being ordered. What sort of dentistry will they be forced into offering their patients— minimal intervention or maximal income? Crushing debt will change the face of dentistry, driving new graduates away from private practice and into dental corporations where commerce is the main goal rather than care.
As stories of dental bankruptcies and ever-increasing tuition hit the press, the number of applicants is destined to decline in the coming years. One assumes in general that the best applicants get accepted and the weaker find another career, but soon the best applicants may reject dentistry and turn to alternative careers, leaving the marginal or weak applicants to fill the ever-increasing numbers of slots in dental schools.
The law school applicant bubble has burst. Whither goeth the dental applicant pool?