University of Utah trustees on Tuesday approved a School of Dentistry, the first new college at the U. in years, and a related four-year doctoral program, all funded by $37 million in private pledges. The school will enroll its first cohort of 20 students in fall 2013.
The doctoral program, which still requires approval of the state Board of Regents, won't be the first in Utah. Last fall, the Nevada-based private, nonprofit Roseman University of Health Sciences opened a Utah campus in a South Jordan office park. But the U.'s dental school will be the first established at a world-class research institution in the U.S. in more than 20 years, according to G. Lynn Powell, the U.'s interim dean for dental education.
Powell and another interim dean, pharmacy professor Glen Hanson, expect the fledgling program to crack the nation's top 10 dental programs within 10 years.
"Utah has a tremendous pool of well-qualified students that currently have to go out of state for part of their dental education," Powell told trustees.
There is currently no shortage of dentists in Utah, but that could change. According to the Utah Medical Education Council, there aren't enough dentists establishing new practices in Utah to maintain the current ratio of 56.8 dentists per 100,000 residents (about three dentists fewer than the national average). The state needs 75 to 85 new dentists each year to maintain the ratio, given projected retirements and population growth.
Since 1980, the U. has operated a regional dental education program through the School of Medicine, in which Utah students undertake their first year of dental training at the U. before transferring to Nebraska's Creighton University for the final three years. Part of their tuition is reimbursed if they return to Utah to practice, but these students' annual expenses are now between $85,000 and $115,000, according to a program proposal prepared by Powell. This big financial burden could be why the number of first-year dental students from Utah slipped to 134 from 168 between 2004 and 2008.
Tuition for the U. dental program will be the same as the medical school, currently $28,735.
"We will be considerably less than what students now pay, coming out of school with debt up to $350,000," said Powell, who has been with the U. dental program since its inception 32 years ago. "They don't have as large a debt to service, and that may influence where they practice. Our fee scale is so much less here."
Powell anticipates the program will provide access to dental care in rural and underserved areas and recruit some students from these communities.
The program is expected to employ 42 full-time and 45 part-time faculty members. The U. is in the process of securing initial accreditation from the Commission on Dental Accreditation, which sent a site-visit team to campus last month.
"They were excited about the possibility to do research here," Hanson said. The new college, the U.'s 16th, is expected to team with the university's well-established schools of medicine, nursing and pharmacy in pursuit of research opportunities. Promising areas are pain management, addiction, genetics, materials and dental prostheses, according to Hanson.
The U. already has won legislative approval to build a home for the school with an anonymous $30 million gift that was contingent on the program's initiation by the 2013-14 academic year. Potential sites have been selected at Research Park and near the medical school, but the building would not be ready for use until fall 2014. The building will provide enough classrooms and clinical facilities to accommodate cohort classes as large as 50 students. Until it's ready, dental students will continue to study in space within the medical school.
Students currently in the regional program will have to finish their training out of state. That program will be retired as the U. brings the school of dentistry into full operation by 2016.