Does it provide an opportunity for education or is it the beginning of the path to indentured servitude?
BY WALTER D. WEST, O.D., F.A.A.O., Chief Optometric Editor
The desire to earn a degree in optometry is one that many follow -- with the aid of student loans. Often these loans are the only means of paying for an optometric education, which continues to increase in cost each year.
While the availability of student loans on the front end seems a great advantage, the resulting student debt can have far-reaching effects that are only truly appreciated once repayment begins.
Repayment woes ahead
When I talk to students from the different optometry schools around the country, the main topic of conversation soon turns to the looming repayment of student loans. After my most recent conversation with a group of students I realized that student debt plays a major role in shaping the future of our profession.
There seems to be a point where students, in their last two years of optometry school, become increasingly aware that the repayment of student loans will become a reality sooner than they would like to think.
The third and fourth years of optometry school were once a time for students to turn their attention to practice opportunities.
Now, to a large degree, these students seem only interested in where they, as optometrists, can secure a job that will allow them to service their student debt.
More graduates, more debt
With student loans available, students eager to sign on the dotted line and student debt often approaching 108% of the cost of education (including room and board), optometry schools have increased the number of students in each class with some regularity. The end result is an increased number of graduates who feel that they must find a job so that they can service their student debt.
These greater numbers of optometrists in the job market leads to a significant advantage for corporate optometry, which is interested in hiring as it expands. We see far fewer optometrists graduating from school and starting their own practices, as was once the norm.
The corporate cycle
This whole scenario is just another illustration of supply and demand -- corporate optometry needs optometrists, the schools educate more optometrists, more optometrists have student loans, more optometrists feel that the only way they can make a living and amortize their student debt is to work in corporate optometry and the cycle is complete.
But now a problem presents itself. Many optometrists in corporate settings are, in some areas, beginning to realize that there are too many optometrists with too much student debt. They all seek corporate employment and there are only so many jobs to go around.
Some optometrists who built practices in corporate settings for years are finding that they can and are being replaced by a newer graduate, who also has student debt, but who is willing to work for less. Supply and demand strikes again!
So what will the future hold? Currently the American Optometric Association Advantage program, created by Dr. John Rumpakis, is assisting many grads in debt consolidation and reduction. Ultimately, the market for employee O.D.s in corporate practice will balance itself and as it does, the demand for O.D.s in these settings will decrease.
With this reduction in the demand for O.D.s, the schools will likely reduce the number of students in each class and many new grads will again seek careers in private practice. However, there is a catch -- we must create opportunities for the new graduates in our practices.