By William A. Foster, IV
Find a need and fill it. – A.G. Gaston
Poor dental hygiene has been well documented as a gateway or precursor to other more serious illness in health. It is of very little surprise that recent data compiled by Bloomberg’s Visual Data, 4 out of the 5 worst dental health offenders are in the deep south and the fifth offender is West Virginia. Dr. Mark Baumgartner of the Dental Clinic of Marshfield notes “research indicates periodontal disease can increase your risk of heart attack or stroke; increase the risk of delivering a preterm, low birth weight baby; and exacerbate diabetes and kidney disease.” The data shown below is for the overall states, and as with most health statistics it does not become hard to assume that African American statistics are worse than the overall state of affairs.
There are currently only 2 HBCU dental schools. Meharry Medical College in Tennessee and Howard University’s Dental School in the nation’s capital of Washington D.C. Only Meharry is located in a state of the top ten worst dental health in Tennessee which ranks fourth. It goes without saying that if Africa America was a country, having only two dental schools to produce enough dentist to service a population of 40 million citizens would be leaving its citizens dramatically underserved.
The data gives HBCUs a strong starting point for making cases that there is an opportunity to provide service to not only the African American population but the state’s population and could drive in much needed capital inflows from other Diaspora groups. But where are the priorities to develop high value alumni? The type of alumni who are in professions that have the ability to not only meet a need but generate top percentile salaries. An HBCU like Jackson State University made a concerted effort to obtain funding for a new football stadium to the tune of $200 million. Jackson State University is located in Mississippi, the state with the worst dental health. The university has not produced a NFL draft pick since 2008 and only 86 in its history. Meanwhile, if that same funding push had been aimed at developing a dental school where the median salary of a dentist is $150 000 and just achieved the same number of graduates Meharry’s School of Dentistry has with 60 students graduating per year the income pool of that graduating class would be approximately $9 million annually. The last time I checked someone could have a career as a dentist for thirty plus years while the average football career is four. We are annually talking about producing a consistent group of alumni whose lifetime earnings could be $270 million versus hoping to produce a few NFL players whose career earnings will be in the neighborhood of $2.4 million and have an 80 percent chance of going broke after they stop playing. Remember, just ONE class of 60 dental school graduates is worth $270 million over their lifetime in earnings.
This is not intended to pick on Jackson State University. The same could be said for a number of HBCUs who are chasing new stadiums and the hopes of athletic windfalls that is regulated to a very small group of HWCUs who have alumni in the hundreds of thousands. Many among them are full service universities that have boosters like dentist earning six-figure salaries that allow them to pump donations into their athletic programs. The demographics allow for the profitability not the stadium.
Ultimately, it comes down to priorities and strategy. There is so much opportunity (and revenue potential) simply fufilling the needs of our communities. 1890 HBCUs especially have an immense opportunity in servicing rural America where dental health tends to be poorer because of lack of access. Using their agricultural extension to build out these programs and services as well as obtain access to funding through the Department of Agriculture gives an easier entry point to building dental schools. Again, it takes creativity and vision to expand the possibilities and push the boundaries. Ultimately, if health is wealth, then when are we going to start making investments in our own?