Associate vs. Bachelor’s Degree in Dental Hygiene

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Associate vs. Bachelor’s Degree in Dental Hygiene
portrait of Nalea Ko
by Nalea Ko
Published on September 23, 2021


Whether you decide to pursue an associate degree or a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene, you can find opportunities to make a difference in promoting oral health.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that employment for all dental hygienists will increase by 6% between 2019-2029, with the employers adding 13,300 jobs.

An aging U.S. population and increased awareness about oral health and its connection to overall health are expected to help fuel job growth, according to the BLS. Rural and underserved areas with the greatest oral health disparities offer some of the best opportunities for dental hygienists.

Dental hygienists usually earn an associate degree in dental hygiene before gaining state licensure, but individuals who want to pursue jobs outside of a clinical setting may seek a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene.

The degree you earn impacts how long it takes to start your dental hygiene career, your earning potential, and where you can work.

Associate Degree in Dental Hygiene

Under dentists' supervision, dental hygienists work with patients throughout their entire visit. Dental hygienists clean patients' teeth, take X-rays, and perform administrative duties. Dental hygienists need at least an associate degree to become licensed and find a job.

Pursuing an associate degree in dental hygiene, which typically takes 2-3 years, is a popular training option. These programs teach future dental hygienists dental science and technical dental hygiene skills. Lab work provides students with opportunities to gain experience using dental equipment.

In addition to taking dental hygiene courses, students must complete about 30 general education credits, such as English, math, and other science classes.

Students can complete dental hygiene programs through vocational schools or community colleges. Common prerequisites for dental hygiene schools include a current CPR certification.

Bachelor's Degree in Dental Hygiene

Dental hygienists sometimes build on their associate degree and earn a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene. This takes about four years for full-time students without any prior college credit. However, if students have 60 or more transferable college credits from an associate program, a bachelor's program will take about two additional years.

Some dental hygiene schools also offer dual programs that allow students to an associate and bachelor's degree in dental hygiene concurrently.

Students pursuing a bachelor's degree must complete about 60 general education credits in courses covering topics like communications, humanities, math, natural and physical sciences, and electives. Students need to complete about 120 credits to earn a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene.

A bachelor's program provides more in-depth training and specialized courses than an associate program. Major-related course topics may include forensic dentistry, leadership and management, and research methodologies.

Should I Pursue an Associate or Bachelor's Degree in Dental Hygiene?

Different factors can influence what type of dental hygiene program you should pursue. Consider your career goals when picking a program type, as well as how much time and money you have to invest in your education. As you can see below, each dental hygiene degree type has its benefits.

Associate Degree

  • Faster pathway to the workforce
  • Typically costs less
  • Prepares you for the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination
  • Gives you the foundation to earn a bachelor's degree more quickly and cheaply in the future

Bachelor's Degree

  • More in-depth education and training
  • Offers a greater variety of job opportunities
  • Prepares you for graduate school
  • May also train you for research, sales, or education positions

Christine Songco, a registered dental hygienist in California with 15 years of experience, chose to pursue an associate of science degree in dental hygiene because she felt job opportunities would still be abundant without a bachelor degree.

“I did not think a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene would enhance my chances of getting hired as a dental hygienist when it came time to look for work,” Christine said. “An associate degree in dental hygiene is more than adequate enough to pass the national and state board exams, and have the skills to practice as a dental hygienist right out of school.”

How long it takes to complete dental hygiene school depends on your previous college experience and whether you pursue an associate degree or bachelor's degree in dental hygiene.

A program's learning format also influences how long it takes to complete a dental hygiene program. Some dental hygiene schools offer fully online degrees that provide greater flexibility for students who want to work while earning their degree.

When choosing a dental hygiene program, check to see if the program has been accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). This national accrediting agency has evaluated more than 1,400 dental hygiene programs. Accredited schools must meet curriculum standards established by CODA. This helps ensure that you get a quality education and dental hygiene training that employers and other colleges recognize and value.

Frequently Asked Questions About Dental Hygiene Degrees

Will I make more money with a dental hygiene bachelor's degree than an associate degree?

Data from the BLS shows that earning a more advanced degree typically pays off in any field. Individuals with an associate degree made a median weekly salary of $887 in 2019, while those who held a bachelor's degree earned $1,248 a week. Factors such as geographic location and experience can also influence earning potential.

Is it better to earn a dental hygiene associate degree from a vocational school or a community college?

Both vocational schools and community colleges offer associate degrees in dental hygiene that employers recognize. Dental hygiene programs accredited by CODA offer education and training that meet industry standards.

Are there online dental hygiene bachelor's degree programs?

Yes. Many schools offer fully online bachelor's degree programs in dental hygiene. These programs do not require students to commute to campus. Additionally, online dental hygiene bachelor's programs often have two-year accelerated pathways for students who already hold an associate degree or some college credit.

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