Why Is Student Debt So High?
The numbers suggest it’s not due to a “rock star” lifestyle.
MICHAEL BACIGALUPI, O.D., M.S., F.A.A.O.
I once heard former AOA President Pete Kehoe, tell students, “Live like a doctor now, and you’ll live like a student forever.” His point was that students should limit expenditures during optometry school so that they are not burdened with excessive debt throughout their careers.
He’s right. Students in optometry or any professional educational program must minimize their indebtedness, but it is not easy. During the first week of orientation, we discuss debt accumulation and repayment. It is not an easy topic to bring up to a first-year student, but it is very important to their future success. We remind them of indebtedness throughout their curriculum, and we require an individual debt management project to be completed during their fourth year.
The question remains, why do students have so much debt? Let’s look at some numbers. Since 2008, the median debt level for a graduating optometrist increased from $152,409 to $177,095. The normal inflation rate of 8.0% from 2008 to 2013 would have raised this number to $164,604, so it is true that the debt levels have increased faster than inflation, but not by much. So, how do optometry students accrue this type of high debt? The biggest piece of it is tuition.
If you calculate the average resident tuition at the 21 Schools and Colleges of Optometry in the United States, you find $27,704 is the average annual tuition. Multiply this number by four years of training, and you have $110,816 total tuition. Now, if we use the non-resident tuition numbers for all 21 schools, the annual average tuition is $34,753. Multiply this number by four years, and you reach $139,012.
Now, if we subtract this total tuition amount from the average debt in 2013 of $177,095, we find that resident optometry students lived on $66,279 for four years, or $16,569 per year. If we subtract the non-resident tuition amount from the average debt, we find $38,083 left over for the four years, or $9,520 annually.
From here, consider the IRS defines the “poverty level” at $11,490/year for a household of one in 2013. So, our resident optometry students are living at 140% of the poverty level for four years, and the non-resident students are living 17% below the poverty level. It is obvious that most optometry students are not “living like doctors.”
I don’t know any practicing optometrist who would be willing to change places and live on $16,569 or $9,520 per year. The average O.D., according to the last AOA income survey, earns more than $129,385/year — a very big difference from the money on which our students exist.
Let’s change the perception that optometry students live like “rock stars.” They don’t. They live a basic lifestyle while working hard to earn a place in the profession. Let’s understand the challenges that our young colleagues face. And remember, it could be worse: Tuition alone in dental school costs more than $210,000 for four years of training.
In future “School Viewpoint” columns, I’ll discuss ways to structure employment contracts for young O.D.s that can be a win-win for the employer and the employee. OM
DR. BACIGALUPI, A FREQUENT AUTHOR AND LECTURER IN THE AREAS OF PRACTICE MANAGEMENT AND STUDENT AFFAIRS, IS THE ASSISTANT DEAN FOR STUDENT AFFAIRS AT NOVA SOUTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF OPTOMETRY. FROM 1995 TO 2005, HE FOUNDED AND GREW A PRIVATE OPTOMETRIC PRACTICE IN RURAL TEXAS.