What should you think when you see an article in the Wall Street Journal discussing an orthodontist in $1 million in student loan debt?  We’ve all probably had a lot of thoughts when reading about that situation – some supportive of his plight and others not so much.  This story has been around for a while (which means like a week in modern news cycles), and I’ve reflected on it a lot.  So, not that you asked, but here are my two cents.

I was angry when I read the article.  Even though Mike did not anticipate the interest rate changes and the increase in tuition (although he should have expected some modest increases YOY), he did make a decision to attend the most expensive dental school in the country.  Then, his next move was even more perplexing – he decided to attend USC to continue his training for orthodontics.  At this point, he knew his debt load was extreme and yet he continued on at the most expensive school for orthodontics.  A couple things he could have done differently (hindsight being 20/20):

  • Only apply to schools with more “reasonable” tuition or even pay a stipend
  • Wait a couple years – pay down some debt and then go to ortho residency

Neither one of these options is easy.  They require sacrifice, and it may not be what he WANTED to do – but it would have been more responsible.  And don’t even get me started about the lifestyle choices he has made and documented on Instagram for all to see.  So, why should we feel sorry for someone who made bad decision after bad decision?

After a few days, I started to reflect on the insane cost of higher education.  Schools seem to be taking advantage of the limitless amount of money the federal government is loaning to students with very few questions asked.  I mean, really $1 million in student loans?  WTF?  Why has dental school tuition doubled (at least) since I attended dental school?  Have expenses really doubled – or more?  Economic pressure hasn’t really allowed me to raise my fees for orthodontic treatment much over the course of my career, and I’ve had to give employees raises, pay higher lab bills, higher rent etc. etc.  The difference is that I’ve had to figure out a way to make it work.  Why can’t universities do the same?  This type of behavior certainly makes the University look feckless (I just had to use this word somewhere) if not just plain greedy.  Is there mission to educate students or squeeze every last cent from them for the rest of their lives?

A few more days of reflection and a conversation with my husband then produced another thought on this subject.  Should we really be mad at Mike Meru at all?  My impression is that Mike is paying his loans using the Income-Based Repayment Plan.  This plan requires you to pay a certain percentage of your discretionary income (income minus living expenses) and whatever is left after 25 years is forgiven and subject to ordinary income tax.  Yep – he has a salary in the $200,000 range and is paying approximately $1600 a month to pay down his debt.  I know this angers some people, but he is playing by the rules.  These aren’t the same rules that I was given when I graduated from school.  I had to pay all of my loans, and I finally did at age 41.  Theoretically, I could be angry that Mike has it differently, but it would be a waste of energy.  Mike isn’t alone.  I’ve talked to enough dental students to know that this approach is common.  Many people going to dental school and beyond are planning to use this program and are even saving now for the tax bill coming at the end of the 25 years (if the rules don’t change again by then).  They aren’t doing anything illegal, they are playing the game differently.  Morally – well, that’s an entirely different discussion.  This might not sit well with you and it’s not an easy pill to swallow, but this is the new reality.  If you don’t like it, well, it’s time to work on larger change rather than attacking one man online and in closed forums.  Something needs to be done about the outrageous cost of higher education.  Something needs to be done as student loan balances are skyrocketing.  These income-based payment plans are just a tiny band-aid on a system that is hemorrhaging.  I don’t have the answers, but we need to focus on finding a better solution together.

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