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Dental Hygiene Associate vs. Bachelor’s Degree: What’s the Difference?

If you are considering becoming a dental hygienist, then you can anticipate an in-demand, and quite lucrative career path ahead. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for dental hygienists is expected to increase 9 percent by the year 2030, adding roughly 19,000 jobs nationwide.

There are a few ways to become a dental hygienist: you can either earn an associate degree (or certificate), or earn your bachelor’s in dental assisting. Both 2 and 4 year routes are viable options for dental hygienists, and online courses are available. Learn which is best for you based on your current academic needs and what you want for your career later down the road!

Associate vs. Bachelor’s Degree in Dental Hygiene

You can become a dental hygienist by either earning an associate degree, a certificate, or a bachelor’s degree. Certificate programs and associate degrees take between 2-3 years to complete.

Generally speaking, an associate degree or certificate is sufficient for those who want to become dental hygienists. However, a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene may give you a competitive edge if you would like to later advance in the field for additional dentistry research, sales, education, or administrative positions.

Associate/Certificate Programs in Dental Hygiene

Earning your degree from an associate degree program, or an accredited certificate program, can provide you with the proper education to become a dental hygienist. Both certificate programs and associate degree programs offer a combination of classroom learning and hands-on training in labs.

By enrolling in a community college or trade school, you can earn an associate degree in dental hygiene. One of the most common ones to get is an Applied Science in Dental Hygiene. Earning your associate degree can take close to 2 to 3 years to complete. In an associate program, you will have prerequisite courses to complete, which may relate to mathematics, English, or additional business courses.

If you enroll in a certificate program in a trade or vocational school, you could be career-ready in as few as 1-2 years. These certificate programs are preferred by some because they do not require prerequisite courses; instead, only courses relevant to dental hygienist training are offered. Be sure that your school or program is a CODA accredited institution (Commission on Dental Accreditation) so you can get certified in the future.

Bachelor’s Degree in Dental Hygiene

Earning your bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene typically involves enrolling in a university and a combination of classroom learning and hands-on experience. Students getting their bachelor’s degree will also be required to take prerequisite courses like math, English, or other business courses. Getting your bachelor’s in dental hygiene tends to take closer to 4 years to complete.

While gaining a bachelor’s will add to your time in school, your education may be viewed as more well-rounded, making you more marketable for advanced industry positions, or graduate school, in addition to dental hygienist jobs.

Classes in a Dental Hygienist Program

There are classes in associate and bachelor’s degree dental hygiene programs that overlap with one another.

The main difference between the two curriculums is that bachelor’s programs may contain more specialized courses and/or more prerequisites. These classes should prepare students if they would like to practice in alternative career paths and specialized dentistry practices.

Classes in a dental hygienist associate degree/certificate program include but are not limited to:

  • Basic science courses (general chemistry, anatomy, physiology, human biology, etc.)
  • English
  • Sociology
  • Dental anatomy
  • Oral pathology/radiography
  • Oral health education
  • Patient care
  • Preventative management
  • Community dental

In addition to the above courses, bachelor’s degree dental hygienist programs may include the following:

  • Research principles and applications
  • Ethics
  • Advanced dentistry theories and methods
  • Statistical analysis in dentistry
  • Educational policy and management
  • Clinical labs
  • Internship
  • And more

Differences in Pay: Associate vs Bachelor’s Degrees

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2021 that dental hygienists earned an average pay of $81,360, with the top 10 percent making closer to $100,200. While your exact pay will be determined by your employer, experience, and the state you live in, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that hygienists with a bachelor’s degree can open themselves up to a higher earning potential throughout their careers.

Become a Dental Hygienist Today!

Whether you begin your career by getting an associate degree or a certificate, or by receiving a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene, you should be ready for a fulfilling career ahead. While an associate degree helps graduates enter the workforce faster, a bachelor’s degree can lead to career advancement opportunities later down the line. It mainly depends on the path you think is best for you.

Get started today by finding dental hygienist training near you!

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