Online health degrees
We hear a lot about growing opportunity in tech jobs these days, but there's another employment sector that is projected to grow even faster than the domain of Silicon Valley hotshots. A recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that health and health care careers made up more than 60 percent of the fastest growing jobs in the country in 2015 — and some of them were projected to grow as much as six times faster than the 7 percent growth expected in the job market as a whole.
Campus-based and online health degrees are also among the most popular degrees nationwide, according to data released by the National Center for Education Statistics. Here's a table that shows how many schools in each U.S. region offer degrees in health and health specialties either online or in the traditional classroom:
|Region||No. of schools offering health degrees||No. of schools offering at least one health degree online|
|Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI)||501||98|
|Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO)||175||63|
|Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK)||477||138|
|Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD)||447||178|
|Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV)||1187||374|
|Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI)||664||189|
|Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.)||690||142|
|New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME)||250||65|
|Total (all 50 states)||4391||1247|
Entry-level health degrees
It's possible to get your foot in the door of many health and health specialties careers with just an undergraduate degree or dedicated vocational training program. Here's a sketch of what you can expect when earning an entry-level health degree online or on campus:
- Associate degrees - Many of the entry-level careers in the health field are accessible to candidates with associate degrees, which typically take around four semesters of work to complete. Technical disciplines such as sonography, radiation therapy, respiratory therapy, physical or occupational therapy assisting, nuclear medicine technology, dental hygiene assisting and more are each typically require associate-level training from new applicants. Associate degrees in health care administration are also available, for workers in the field with managerial or administrative aspirations.
- Bachelor's degrees - Bachelor's degrees in health often lean somewhat toward administration, clinical management, health science, health informatics or another approach that puts health care activities in a larger context. Working nurses can find numerous programs that upgrade their practitioner's education to a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, and students interested in shifting their health care focus into the realm of research and policy can find bachelor's degree programs in public health. Some health professionals, such as athletic trainers, nutritionists, recreational therapists and nuclear medicine technologists, may also need a bachelor's degree to qualify for work in their field.
- Non-degree study - Undergraduate certificates in health and health care are similar to associate degrees in that many entry-level jobs in the field require candidates to earn them before applying. Medical transcriptionists, phlebotomists, licensed practical/vocational and registered nurses, medical assistants, health information technicians, paramedics, massage therapists and surgical technologists all fall into this category, and some nursing assistants, pharmacy techs, opticians and home health professionals may be able to increase their job prospects with relevant non-degree study.
Although some disciplines in the health care field rely significantly on hands-on instruction or laboratory work and may be difficult to translate into the virtual classroom, students with challenging schedules or limited financial resources can earn a range of health degrees online. Certain schools may even have an online education readiness exam or virtual orientation courses to help you get accustomed to the digital distance education environment.
Advanced-degree health programs
It's often the case that employers look to candidates with advanced educations when seeking to fill positions with supervisory duties, elevated responsibility and other characteristics that can often lead also to greater compensation. Here's a snapshot of the world of traditional and online health degrees at the graduate level:
- Master's degree programs - Master's degrees in health can take several forms, although they educate students primarily in the categories of health science, health administration and advanced health care practice. Health pros like genetic counselors, advance practice nurses, occupational therapists, physician assistants and speech-language pathologists need a master's degree to qualify for work in their respective fields, and degrees in environmental health, epidemiology, public health and healthcare management can expand a health degree graduate's reach in the professional world.
- Doctorate programs - Doctoral programs in health and health care also come in a variety of types. Programs that lead to a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) are typically designed for students whose goal it is to use research, scholarship and critical analysis to address issues in the health sciences, health services or health policy systems as a whole, while other doctorates help aspiring dentists, physicians, optometrists, pharmacists, physical therapists, podiatrists and other top-level practitioners learn the advanced concepts they need to finish their educations.
- Certifications and credentials - Non-degree work in health at the graduate level tends to focus on public health, health administration, health informatics and health science, although schools and other certifying organizations typically do not forbid bachelor's degree graduates from earning technician or practitioner credentials as well. Graduate certificates in health can usually be earned in two semesters or less.
Many of the graduate degrees in health and health specialties have a strong administrative component, which means that they tend to be easier to move into the virtual classroom than their technical or clinical counterparts at the bachelor's level and below. The flexible scheduling typically available when you earn your health degree online can be a major advantage if you're hoping to work around your job, family and other commitments when earning your education.
Q&A with experts
Michelle Katz, LPN, health care advocate, author and public speaker
Why would you encourage someone to pursue a health or healthcare degree?
Because it is a field that is constantly growing and changing and there will always be a need for those in healthcare. It is a degree that also has a personal benefit (not just a job).
In your opinion, what are some of the most valuable health degrees on the market today? What makes these degrees so valuable?
Nursing is probably the most valuable since there are many degrees of nursing and you can build on that degree. It is also the least expensive compared to a medical degree.
What advice would you have for a student who is just beginning to consider health care as a career path?
Be patient and have an open mind. It is not easy, but if you love helping people get and stay healthy, the healthcare field can be your ticket to a stable career.
Michelle Meiser, director of admissions at Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences
What are the most common educational paths for students interested in a health career?
The more science and math, the better. For students who do not get accepted into their healthcare program of choice and plan to reapply, one thing we might suggest is for them to attend a community college for math, English and science courses, and reapply once they've finished those courses with a "B" or better.
What advice would you have for a student who is just beginning to consider health care as a career path?
I recommend volunteering in different hospital departments, especially in areas that the potential student doesn't know much about, like a surgical recovery area or the cardiac department. This gives the student a chance to talk to different people working throughout the hospital and make sure that a particular degree path is the right fit.
Types of health careers
There are a wide range of careers in health and health care that are currently experiencing high demand for applicants who earned formal health degrees online or on campus. Here are just a few of those careers, along with Bureau of Labor Statistics data that reflects salary expectations and employment projections for the next several years:
|Occupation title||National mean annual salary
|Projected job growth
|Total U.S. employment
|Respiratory therapist||$59,640||12 percent||120,700||Associate degree|
|Diagnostic medical sonographer||$70,880||24 percent||112,700||Associate degree|
|Dental hygienist||$72,720||19 percent||200,500||Associate degree|
|Registered nurse||$71,000||16 percent||2,751,000||Associate degree, nursing diploma or bachelor's degree|
|Nutritionist or dietitian||$58,410||16 percent||66,700||Bachelor's degree|
|Occupational therapist||$81,690||27 percent||114,600||Master's degree|
|Physician assistant||$99,270||30 percent||94,400||Master's degree|
Common misconceptions about health degrees
Even though many of us have had a fair amount of experience with the health care system, we don't get much information about what goes on in health degree programs unless we've been through one ourselves. Make sure you're not approaching your search for campus-based and online health degrees with any of these mistaken ideas in mind:
Misconception: Health technician degrees lead to dead-end jobs.
- Fact: There may in fact be little room for direct advancement within a given technical specialty — depending on an individual facility's policies, anyway — but equating that potentiality with "dead-end job" status is a little overdramatic. Students who start out as LPN/LVNs can earn more advanced nursing degrees to increase their skill and move up a pay bracket or two, and just about any experienced technician or clinical assistant can move into management by earning health care administration degrees or shift their knowledge into the policy realm with degrees in public health.
Misconception: Time spent in school for health career training doesn't transfer to academic degree programs.
- Fact: This is sometimes true, but certainly not in all cases. As a general rule, colleges and universities only accept transfer credits that were earned at other accredited academic institutions. If you have the option to take your career training courses at accredited community or online colleges and you think you'll be interested in taking your education to the next level in the future, check with a program rep or academic advisor to find out how you can maximize your chances of earning transferable credits.
Misconception: The job market in health care is so good that earning a health degree online can guarantee you a job.
- Fact: It can't be overstated that there's no single degree plan on Earth that can actually guarantee jobs for its graduates. True, if you live in a high-growth area for a certain health specialty (like Utah for registered nurses or Texas for ultrasound technicians), your job prospects should be fairly strong after graduation, but thinking of your job as guaranteed may stop you from taking advantage of job fairs, career advisement services and other institutional amenities that can help you succeed at turning your degree into a job after graduation.
How can I enroll in an online health degree program?
Campus-based and online health degrees are available all over the country, but the requirements and policies of admission are up to each individual institution. If you're thinking about getting a health degree yourself, browse our listings below and reach out to a few schools directly to find out the best way to proceed.
- College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed April 12, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
- School pages, accessed April 26, 2016: Health Care Management Associate Degree, Penn Foster College, http://www.pennfoster.edu/programs-and-degrees/medical-and-health-careers/health-care-management-associate-degree; Healthcare Administration Associate Degree Online, Ashworth College, https://www.ashworthcollege.edu/associate-degrees/healthcare-administration/; Health Services Management Bachelor's Degree, University of Maryland University College, http://www.umuc.edu/academic-programs/bachelors-degrees/health-services-management-major.cfm; Online Healthcare & Science Bachelor's & Master's Degrees, University of Maryland University College, http://www.umuc.edu/academic-programs/healthcare-and-science.cfm; Online Bachelor's Degree Programs in Health Care, http://www.wgu.edu/online_health_professions_degrees/online_healthcare_bachelor_degree; Curriculum, BS in Public Health, Walden University, https://www.waldenu.edu/bachelors/bs-in-public-health/curriculum; Health Sciences Bachelor's Degree, Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences, www.pacollege.edu/academics/programs/health-sciences-bshs/; Undergraduate Certificate Programs, Public Health, Western Kentucky University, http://www.wku.edu/publichealth/certificate_undergrad.php; Undergraduate Certificate, Kent State University, https://www.kent.edu/publichealth/undergraduate-certificate; Master of Health Science, Johns Hopkins University, http://www.jhsph.edu/academics/degree-programs/masters-programs/master-of-health-science/; Online Health Master's Degree, Western Governors University, http://www.wgu.edu/online_health_professions_degrees/online_healthcare_master_degree; Harvard PhD Program in Health Policy, Harvard University, http://healthpolicy.fas.harvard.edu/; Curriculum, PhD in Health Services, https://www.waldenu.edu/doctoral/phd-in-health-services/curriculum; PhD in Health Sciences, Seton Hall University, https://www13.shu.edu/academics/gradmeded/phd-health-sciences/index.cfm; Certificate Programs, Johns Hopkins University, http://www.jhsph.edu/academics/certificate-programs/; Business of Health Care Graduate Certificate, Johns Hopkins University, http://carey.jhu.edu/academics/certificate-programs/business-of-health-care; Graduate Certificate in Public Health, Georgia State University, http://publichealth.gsu.edu/academic/degrees/grad-cert-in-public-health/; Graduate Certificate in Health Services Management, DeVry University, http://www.keller.edu/graduate-degree-programs/graduate-certificates/health-services-management-certificate.html;
- Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed April 18, 2016: Fastest Growing Occupations, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/fastest-growing.htm; Healthcare Occupations, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/home.htm; Respiratory Therapists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/respiratory-therapists.htm; Diagnostic Medical Sonographers and Cardiovascular Technologists and Technicians, Including Vascular Technologists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/diagnostic-medical-sonographers.htm; Dental Hygienists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm; Registered Nurses, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm; Dietitians and Nutritionists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dietitians-and-nutritionists.htm; Occupational Therapists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapists.htm; Physician Assistants, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physician-assistants.htm;
- May 2014 National Occupational and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm
- Employment Trends by Occupation Across States, Career InfoNet, accessed April 27, 2016: Registered Nurses, http://www.careerinfonet.org/carout3.asp?optstatus=001000000&id=1&nodeid=2&soccode=291141&stfips=05&jobfam=29&menuMode=&order=Percent; Diagnostic Medical Sonographers, http://www.careerinfonet.org/carout3.asp?optstatus=001000000&id=1&nodeid=2&soccode=292032&stfips=05&jobfam=29&menuMode=&order=Percent