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Addressing economic barriers to teaching, VCU School of Dentistry awarded nearly $1M grant for faculty loan repayment

The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration grant aims to address dentistry teaching shortages and strengthen the health care workforce.

Three dentists speaking to each other with face masks on. Nationally, many dental schools are seeing workforce shortages as a crisis affecting the profession. The shortages are due to faculty nearing retirement age and fewer dentists choosing to teach due to financial barriers. (VCU School of Dentistry)

By John Wallace

Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry has been awarded a $970,000, five-year Dental Faculty Loan Repayment Program (DFLRP) grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). The funds will support the recruitment and retention of faculty in the school’s Departments of General Practice, Pediatric Dentistry and Dental Public Health and Policy.

VCU is one of nine dental schools to receive a DFLRP grant in 2023. The purpose of the program is to increase the number of primary care dental and dental hygiene faculty by addressing economic barriers to careers in academia. It is part of the HRSA’s larger Faculty Loan Repayment Program, which focuses on strengthening the workforce supporting all health professions.

According to the American Dental Association, the average dental school graduate enters the workforce with nearly $290,000 in educational debt. With many faculty nearing retirement age nationally and fewer dentists choosing to teach, many cite dental school faculty workforce shortages as a crisis affecting the profession.

“Dental schools often struggle to recruit faculty because the economic incentives to work in private practice are significantly greater than teaching. This grant will allow us to address one of the most significant barriers for both recruiting and retaining early and mid-career dental faculty, the economics,” said Carlos Smith, D.D.S., M.Div., F.A.C.D., associate dean of inclusive excellence, ethics and community engagement at VCU School of Dentistry, who is the school’s project director and principal investigator for the grant.

An oversight committee, under Smith’s guidance, will confirm eligibility guidelines, review applications and administer the funds per the program’s requirements. Using a staggered distribution, the goal is to eliminate the debt of five faculty members over the course of five years.

“Indebtedness has a major impact on a faculty member’s wellbeing. With the burden of student loans alleviated, our faculty members can focus on their teaching and research, continue to cultivate inclusive and equitable learning and clinical environments, consequently, elevating the experience of students, graduates, and patients,” Smith said.

"This highly competitive, nearly $1 million grant from the HRSA is a testament to the outstanding work of our faculty and their commitment to advancing dental education and research," said Lyndon Cooper, D.D.S., Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Dentistry. "With this funding, we will be able to attract and retain top-notch faculty members, bolstering our capacity to provide exceptional dental education to our students and care to our community.”

The School of Dentistry is the latest VCU institution to receive funds from the HRSA to strengthen academia in health care. First awarded in 2017, the School of Nursing’s Nurse Faculty Loan Program grant provides financial assistance for students seeking doctoral degrees and loan forgiveness for those who then go on to work as faculty. By reducing the financial barrier to pursue advanced degrees, the initiative aims to increase the number of qualified nursing educators nationwide. Since its inception, the School of Nursing program has granted more than $775,000 to 23 students in Ph.D. and D.N.P programs.

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