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Dental assistant schools

Dentistry is an important part of total-body wellness, and even the best dentists need capable assistants to help them deliver care that meets the highest standards of the profession. Thanks to campus-based and online dental assistant degrees and training programs, you can learn the skills necessary to get your foot in the door of a growing industry.

If you're trying to make the decision of dental assistant degree vs diploma vs certificate, it can be helpful to know everything you can about your options. Here's a table of data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that shows how many campus-based and online dental assistant programs are offered in each U.S. region:

Region No. of institutions offering dental assistant degrees and training programs No. of institutions offering online dental assistant degrees and training programs
Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI) 123 1
Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO) 33 1
Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK) 88 0
Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD) 50 2
Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV) 182 3
Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI) 109 3
Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.) 63 4
New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME) 26 1
Total (all 50 states) 674 15

Entry-level dental assistant degrees

If you're thinking about a career in dental assisting, it may take you less time than you think to get started. Take a look at these quick breakdowns of entry-level degrees in the dental profession:

  • Associate degrees - Many campus-based and online dental assistant programs take the form of associate degrees, which mix vital courses in clinical dental assisting and dental office management with a well-rounded schedule of general education classes in math, science, English composition, history, psychology and other subjects. Major-specific coursework often covers the technology and terminology of dentistry, as well as essential radiology, dental anatomy, community health basics and techniques for effective chair-side dental assisting.
  • Bachelor's degrees - If you decide to take your dental education further, bachelor's degrees in the field can train you to move out of the assistant's position and into the role of a dental hygienist. Dentistry-focused courses at this level often include periodontology, radiology, oral histo-pathology, advanced clinical concepts, contemporary issues in dental hygiene, dental public health, nutritional biochemistry, statistical reasoning and more. Students who earn associate degrees before enrolling in bachelor's programs tend to complete them up to four semesters faster than those who have no degree at the time of enrollment.
  • Non-degree study - The question of dental assistant degree vs diploma vs certificate — and whether one is better than the others in terms of academic or professional preparation — can come up from time to time among industry hopefuls. A non-degree award like a diploma or certificate is usually the faster path to a dental assisting career, sometimes taking less than a year to complete, and most programs cover the same clinical and administrative subjects that are typically covered in associate degree programs, but graduates may have to complete an entire bachelor's degree curriculum if they decide to take the next step in their schooling.

Online programs in dental assisting aren't especially common in the U.S., but students who require the scheduling flexibility of the virtual classroom can find them if they need them. Online dental assistant programs may come with a lower overall cost, as well, so students with less money to commit to their educations can still get the training they need.

Advanced-degree dental assistant programs

Dental assistants who want to study their field in greater depth and work toward careers of increasing responsibility and compensation can study higher-order concepts of dentistry in graduate and post-graduate programs. Here's what you can expect if you continue to climb the academic ladder available to holders of traditional or online dental assistant degrees:

  • Professional degree programs - Programs that lead to Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) and Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degrees can prepare you to work as an official practitioner of dentistry and dental surgery. Although many programs don't list a bachelor's degree as a firm requirement for acceptance, competition for seats in these programs can be strong and applicants who have undergraduate degrees — particularly in dental hygiene or dental science — are likely to have an advantage over those who don't.
  • Master's degree programs - If you're hoping to use your dental knowledge and expertise to contribute to the field through more academic avenues than direct public practice, it's likely that you'll want to add a master's degree to your DDS or DMD. Graduate degrees in the field include Master of Science (MS) degrees in dentistry, dental hygiene, oral biology and dental research, as well as an MS in biomedical sciences with a concentration in orthodontics, endodontics, prosthodontics, periodontics, pediatric dentistry or another dental specialty.
  • Doctorate programs - Top-level dental scientists and independent researchers usually go on to earn a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree, which is the terminal degree for students of dental science — a far cry from most campus-based or online dental assistant degrees but a potential destination for someone who starts as an assistant. Programs at this level may take up to seven years to complete, but they often provide students with the opportunity to continue their dental practice while they learn.
  • Graduate certificates - Campus-based and online dental assistant certificate programs designed specifically for bachelor's degree graduates are quite uncommon, but standard diploma and certificate programs in dental assisting are unlikely to turn away applicants who are eligible for graduate school. Established dentists and hygienists may also be able to take some valuable tips away from more general graduate certificate programs in health informatics, clinical practice management, community health or other related subjects.

Students looking for options to build on their online dental assisting degrees with advanced programs taught in the virtual classroom can find a few graduate and post-graduate degrees available through distance education, although some specialties may be easier to find than others.

Q&A with an expert

John W. Yang, Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) at Tru Family Dental in Crystal Lake, Illinois

John W. Yang, Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) at Tru Family Dental in Crystal Lake, IllinoisWhy would you encourage someone to consider a degree in dental assisting?

JY: They must enjoy working with people and helping them overcome anxiety and fear. What I've noticed about dental assistants who love their job is that they take pride in what they do for their patients and enjoy being part of a great team and working for a dentist they respect. Along with those traits, if you truly care about people and making their oral health improve on a daily basis, I would encourage you to consider a degree in dental assisting.

What would have been helpful to know about dental assisting when you were looking into your own education?

JY: I was a dental assistant before applying to dental school, and it enabled me to get a taste of all of the various procedures, but more importantly, it showed me the daily challenges and rewards of taking care of patients and the amazing transformations possible in the world of dentistry.

What are the most common educational paths for those interested in dental assisting?

JY: Most applicants considering dental assistant training opt for either a diploma/certificate or an associate degree with an accredited school. Some employers, including myself, have provided on the job training but there is a cost for the time to train, monitor, and test them.

Are there specific advantages to earning an associate degree in the field vs. a certificate or diploma? Do employers typically prefer one over the other?

JY: The associate degree will have an advantage over the diploma or certificate. The degree from an accredited school requires much longer training and a wider range of subjects that are applicable to the job such as administrative or record keeping skills as well as speaking, writing, and computer skills. Many dental assistants with degrees often get promoted to other job opportunities within the dental field and higher pay.

Types of dental assistant careers

Campus-based and online dental assistant degrees and other training may only prepare you explicitly for a career as a dental assistant, but your introduction to clinical procedures and hygiene can serve you well if you choose to move into another segment of the health care field. Here are a few health care careers related either vertically (more education in the same field) or laterally (similar professions in a different segment) to dental assisting, along with employment and salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

Occupation title National mean annual salary
(2015)
Projected job growth
(2014-2024)
Total U.S. employment
(2014)
Entry-level education
Dental assistant $36,920 18 percent 318,800 Postsecondary non-degree award
Surgical technologist $45,940 15 percent 99,800 Postsecondary non-degree award
Medical assistant $31,910 23 percent 591,300 Postsecondary non-degree award
Dental hygienist $72,720 19 percent 200,500 Associate degree
Dentist, general $172,350 18 percent 129,000 Doctoral or professional degree
Orthodontist $221,390 18 percent 8,200 Doctoral or professional degree

Common misconceptions about dental assistant degrees

Most people have had some sort of experience with dentistry, but there aren't many in the general public who can claim a real understanding of training programs in the field. Check out these common misconceptions about campus-based and online dental assistant degrees and programs and see if you're harboring any mistaken notions of your own:

Misconception: It's foolish to study health specialties like dental assisting without traveling in person to a classroom or laboratory.

  • Fact: Some people may have a much easier time learning with hands-on instruction, but that doesn't mean that hands-on is the only way to learn. Communications technology has advanced to the point where virtual labs and classrooms can deliver effective visual aids and other learning tools that can help cement the course material in the minds of students with more flexible learning styles.

Misconception: Dental assisting graduates don't qualify for DDS or DMD programs.

  • Fact: The admissions policies of any specific program are set by the individual institution where it's offered, but it's commonly the case that a bachelor's degree is not required for applicants to full-fledged dentistry degree programs. Admissions reps may prefer candidates with bachelor's degrees, but a strong performance in your dental assisting associate degree program and some solid work experience might also impress a dental school registrar.

Misconception: There's no point to studying dental assisting when you can go straight to a bachelor's in dental hygiene.

  • Fact: For one thing, the duties performed by dental assistants and dental hygienists are almost completely separate from one another. Dental assistants do mostly preparatory and administrative work, while hygienists perform oral exams, use radiological equipment and otherwise work directly with patients. If you're interested in the profession but don't want to commit to a career as a direct dental practitioner, a degree or certificate in dental assisting might be just what you're looking for.

How can I enroll in an online dental assistant degree program?

The requirements, policies and procedures of traditional and online dental assistant degree programs tend to vary from institution to institution, so the best way to find out how to enroll is to contact a school of your choice directly. Take a look through our listings below and choose a place to start your journey into this stable and well-paying career field.

Sources:

  1. College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed March 18, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
  2. School pages, accessed May 26, 2016: Dental Assistant Associate Degree, Vista College, http://www.vistacollege.edu/degree-programs/healthcare/dental-assistant-associate-degree/; Dental Assistant Diploma, Kaplan University, http://www.kaplanuniversity.edu/health-sciences/dental-assistant-diploma.aspx; Dental Assistant Degree Program, East Coast Polytechnic Institute, https://www.ecpi.edu/programs/dental-assistant-associate-degree; Dental Assisting Certificate, Baker College, https://www.baker.edu/programs-degrees/dental-assisting-certificate/#course-information; Dental Hygiene B.A.S. Degree, https://www.spcollege.edu/dental-bas/#tab=3; Curriculum and Program Requirements, Dental Hygiene (B.S.) Degree, University of Bridgeport, http://www.bridgeport.edu/academics/undergraduate/dental-hygiene-bs/curriculum-and-program-requirements/; Curriculum, Dental Hygiene, Bachelor of Science, College of Southern Nevada, http://sites.csn.edu/health/pdf/BSDHcurric.pdf; Dental Assistant Career Diploma, Penn Foster Career School, http://www.pennfoster.edu/programs-and-degrees/medical-and-health-careers/dental-assistant-career-diploma; Online Dental Assistant School, U.S. Career Institute, http://www.uscareerinstitute.edu/certificates/health-care-programs/dental-assistant/; Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.) Degree Program, University of Missouri - Kansas City, https://dentistry.umkc.edu/Future_Students/dds.shtml; Frequently Asked Questions, Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) Program, http://dentistry.usc.edu/programs/dds/faq/; Doctor of Dental Medicine D.M.D. Degree Program, Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health, https://www.atsu.edu/asdoh/programs/dental_medicine/; Doctor of Dental Surgery Degree, University of Colorado, http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/dentalmedicine/ProgramsAdmissions/DoctorDentalSurgery/Pages/DoctorDentalSurgery.aspx; Master of Science in Biomedical Sciences Program, University of Maryland, https://www.dental.umaryland.edu/research/graduate-programs/masters-degree-program/; MS in Biology, Oral Biology Track, New York University, http://dental.nyu.edu/academicprograms/masters-degree-programs/bio-oral-biology.html; Dental Master's Programs, Rutgers University, http://sdm.rutgers.edu/departments/oral-biology/masters/; Master's Program in Dental Science, University of Rochester Medical Center, https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/dentistry/education/masters.aspx; Master of Science in Dental Hygiene, University of Southern California, http://dentistry.usc.edu/programs/dental-hygiene/msdh/; Online Programs, Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry, University of Southern California, http://dentistry.usc.edu/programs/online-programs/; Dental Scientist Training Program (DDS/Ph.D.), University of California San Francisco, https://dentistry.ucsf.edu/admissions/dental-scientist-training-program-ddsPh.D.; DDS/Ph.D., University of Washington School of Dentistry, https://dental.washington.edu/oral-health-sciences/graduate-program-in-oral-biology/ddsPh.D./; Online Graduate Certificates, School of Health Related Professions, Rutgers University, http://shrp.rutgers.edu/campus/online.html
  3. Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist: What You Need to Know, Concorde Career College, accessed May 26, 2016, http://www.concorde.edu/blog/dental-assistant-vs-dental-hygienist
  4. Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed May 19, 2016: Dental Assistants, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Healthcare/Dental-assistants.htm; Surgical Technologists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/surgical-technologists.htm; Medical Assistants, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-assistants.htm; Dental Hygienists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/dental-hygienists.htm; Dentists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Healthcare/Dentists.htm
  5. May 2014 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed March 18, 2016, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm
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