Amber Dunn graduated from the College of Optometry in 2013 with $250,000 in debt, and the loans she recently took out to start her own private practice linger over her head.

Optometry students often come out of school with approximately $160,000 in debt and for Dunn, she was fully aware of what she was getting herself into.

For a long time, especially in recent years, college debt has been a problem for many graduates. Whether students graduate with a four-year degree or more, the cost of college is at an all time high. This is problematic for many students.

Dunn remembers taking nine classes and six labs her first year of optometry school. This left her with very little time to work while in school. She did not want to worry about putting gas in her car or feeding herself so she took out the loans she was allotted in order to avoid various financial stressors.

“I did work a few hours a week, but that was more so as a getaway rather than to make sure I could pay for things,” Dunn said. “I know student debt is stressful, but I would rather worry about paying it when I am done with school, well educated and working rather than not taking the loans out and struggling financially while in school.”

The cost to attend the College of Optometry changes on a year-to-year basis. Students are in class for various amounts of time throughout each of the four years. To currently attend the College of Optometry it costs more than $156,000 on top of obtaining a bachelors degree. This amount includes books, equipment, national board fees and the initial licensing fee.

“It’s expensive to purchase books, but students don’t typically sell their books, they refer to them [after they graduate,]” Dean of the College of Optometry Jennifer Coyle said. “Our students buy a lot of equipment because they take it and use it in practice. [Students] use them in procedure labs, disease labs, clinic, screenings, and they use it for a lifetime.”

Throughout the years, Coyle said optometrists have a zero percent default rate on federal student loans, meaning they pay their loans and do not back out. The starting salary of an optometrist is around $90,000, following the average salary of $135,000. This shows that many optometrists do not struggle financially long-term.

Although the numbers are daunting, there are quite a few opportunities optometrists have after graduation.

The military will offer almost a full ride if the student is committed to be stationed for a few years on a military base providing eye care, but the application process is very competitive.

Some students will choose to work in a corporate setting like LensCrafters or Costco, and others will open up a private practice, like Dunn.

“I have opened my practice. Things are going well and I am also working part time at [Pacific] as a faculty member and as the head cheerleading coach,” Dunn said. “I do write a large check each month. Without those loans I could not be where I am today.”

As for the future of the College of Optometry, Coyle and others are working to increase growing the number of scholarship opportunities.

There are very few scholarships currently offered. Since it is a graduate program, an endowment is the main source of financial aid through the school.

Pacific is also trying to have the optometry program included in the National Health Care Service Core where physicians go to rural community health centers and a certain percentage of their federal loans are forgiven.

“I think students should take out student loans to help relieve some of the financial stress while in school, however, in order for that to be the most successful, they have to be driven and have a plan after school,” Dunn said. “Student debt is ‘good debt’ but the bottom line is that it is still debt.”

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