Dental Hygienist Degrees: Bachelor, Associate & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in a dental hygienist degree program? Read about degree requirements, pros and cons of associate's and bachelor's degree programs and potential careers.
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Studying Dental Hygiene: Associate's and Bachelor's Degrees at a Glance

Dental hygiene undergraduate degree programs can prepare you to work in dental offices, dental research, public health programs, dental sales and educational programs. However, keep in mind that some careers in the dental hygiene field could be lower paying than dental hygienist careers.

If you're considering a career as a dental hygienist, you'll find that the job outlook for this career is very positive. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that from 2010-2020, employment of dental hygienists will increase by 38%. This is much faster than the average for all job types. Health educators, a group that includes dental health educators, are also expected to experience faster-than-average growth. The BLS predicted a 37% increase in employment for health educators from 2010-2020.

Associate's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Students who are interested in becoming dental hygienists Licensed dental hygienists who are interested in refining their skills or working in health education
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Dental hygienist ($69,000)*
- Dental sales representative ($55,000; salary for entry-level sales representatives in general)**
Career options are similar to those at the associate's degree level but may also include:
- Community dental health worker ($38,000; salary for the related career of community health worker)*
- Dental health educator ($48,000; salary for health educators in general)*
- Dental personnel services manager (salary unavailable)
Time to Completion 2 years full-time 4 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements Clinical requirements - Internship
- Thesis
Prerequisites - High school diploma or equivalent
- CPR certification
- Immunizations and vaccinations
- Health exam
- Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS)
- Health and liability insurance coverage
- Associate's degree in dental hygiene is often required
- Current dental hygienist license
Online Availability No Yes

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures), **Salary.com (June 2012 figures).

Associate's Degree in Dental Hygiene

An associate's degree program in dental hygiene can help you learn the skills you'll need to provide preventative dental care or work in a related field. Associate's degree programs in dental hygiene that are accredited by the American Dental Association's (ADA) Committee on Dental Accreditation can prepare you to take the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE) as well as any additional licensing examinations in your state. Every state requires that dental hygienists be licensed.

Dental hygiene programs usually have a limited number of slots available to students, so competition can be fierce. In many cases, you'll need to have completed the required math, science and social science classes before being considered for admission to a program.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Work in a comfortable environment
  • Dental hygienists often have flexible schedules
  • A link between oral and general health could improve employment opportunities*

Cons

  • To enroll in an associate's degree program in dental hygiene, you may be required to carry health and liability insurance
  • Programs can be difficult to get into because there are usually a limited number of slots
  • Further education may be required for advancement

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

Courses in dental hygiene associate's degree programs cover topics like oral anatomy and physiology, diseases of the mouth and various cleaning and diagnostic techniques. There are usually clinical practice and laboratory requirements in these programs. Many programs require you to take the NBDHE.

Some of the classes you may take at the associate's degree level include:

  • Oral anatomy
  • Oral pathology
  • Oral radiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Dental materials
  • Public dental health
  • Periodontology

Online Degree Options

There are very few online degree options for associate's level programs in dental hygiene because it's important for students to get hands-on experience to develop the required skills. If you want to be a dental hygienist, you might consider a more traditional educational experience.

Stand Out With This Degree

Dental hygienists assist with dental procedures and interact with the public, so you might may want to refine your interpersonal and technical skills while you're in school. Here are a few other ways you can stand out and impress potential employers:

  • Join a professional organization, such as the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA), as a student member. There are several benefits of membership, including recognition for community service and other achievements, scholarship opportunities and access to member-only discounts.
  • Obtain experience with digital x-rays since employers like to see this on a resume. If your school does not require classes in digital radiology, take them as electives.
  • Earn certification, such as local anesthesia certification or nitrous oxide certification, from your local government or from continuing education sources.

Bachelor's Degree in Dental Hygiene

Most bachelor's degree programs in dental hygiene are extended programs or bachelor's completion programs. This means that you must be licensed as a dental hygienist and have already completed an associate's program in dental hygiene to be admitted. Though there are a few entry-level bachelor's degree programs in dental hygiene, they're relatively rare.

The goal of a bachelor's degree program in dental hygiene is to give you the skills you need to be eligible for certain careers that are not open to graduates with an associate's degree. These include careers as community dental health coordinators, dental health educators and dental personnel services managers. However, to work as a dental hygienist, you only need an associate's degree.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Graduates may be able to pursue careers that are closed to those who have certificates or associate's degrees
  • Bachelor's degree programs give you a more well-rounded education in social sciences
  • Programs build on knowledge you've acquired in an associate's degree program

Cons

  • An associate's degree in dental hygiene is usually required for admission
  • This degree is not usually necessary if you want to become a dental hygienist
  • A dental hygienist license is usually necessary for admission

Courses and Requirements

Many bachelor's degree programs in dental hygiene are offered only to those who have an associate's degree in dental hygiene; because of this, there typically are fewer classes directly related to dental hygiene than in an associate's degree program. Classes cover topics that are focused on research methods, teaching strategies and dental health program planning. Some programs require a thesis and an internship. Some of the courses you might be required to take include:

  • Research methods
  • Teaching strategies
  • Current dental hygiene issues
  • Principles of dental hygiene practice
  • Statistics

Online Degree Options

If you have an associate's degree and a dental hygienist license, there are several online bachelor's degree completion programs available to you. Courses are similar to the ones offered through traditional formats. You may need to make trips to campus to work on senior projects or laboratory work, and internships are sometimes required.

Stand Out With This Degree

A bachelor's degree in dental hygiene can prepare you for careers that require analytical and teaching skills, so it's a good idea to hone these abilities while you're in school. Here are some additional ways you can stand out from other job candidates:

  • Take advantage of research opportunities at your school. Some schools have facilities that support dental hygiene research.
  • Refine your technical skills, focusing on new presentation techniques. Several careers in the field of dental hygiene require that you educate the public, and being knowledgeable of new ways to disseminate information can help you stand out to employers.
  • Get involved in student organizations and refine your leadership skills since these might be useful in your career.

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