Dental Assistant Associate Degree vs. Dental Assistant Certificate Programs

More and more Americans have access to dental insurance plans which is creating a surge in the need for qualified dental assistants—an entry-level career for those wanting to join the field of allied health professionals. Dental assisting has multiple degree and certificate pathways. The primary responsibilities of a dental assistant include basic patient care, taking x-rays, scheduling appointments, and assisting dentists and dental hygienists with clinical tasks.

With more than 346,000 positions, the field of dental assisting is one of the fastest-growing professions in the United States. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 38,700 new dental assistants will be needed between 2018 and 2018—an 11 percent rate of growth which is much faster than the national average for all occupations (BLS 2019). Fortunately for prospective dental assistants, educational and vocational career pathways are plentiful and offer extensive on-the-job training.

So why is the field of dental assisting growing so rapidly? There are two main reasons: expanded dental care for children and a large aging population in the United States. The expansion of the Affordable Healthcare Act in 2010 has required that children under the age of 18 years old be enrolled in a dental plan as part of ten essential health benefits (FamiliesUSA.org 2018). What’s more, sales of adult stand-alone dental plans are ten times higher than stand-alone dental insurance plans for children (American Dental Association 2017), meaning a growing number of adults aged 18 to 64 now have dental insurance coverage. The prevention and treatment needs for children and adults have resulted in higher numbers of patients going to the dentist which explains the increasing demand for more allied health dental professionals. Dental assistants are being hired in dental clinics to help dentists and dental hygienists take on this increasing number of patients.

Not only is dental care being incentivized through the Affordable Healthcare Act, but recent legislation passed in 2018 is also helping expand dental care to underserved populations in the United States. The Action for Dental Health Act bill was passed in December 2018 and promises to improve access to oral healthcare for all Americans and expand care to elderly, blind, disabled, and other patients who may have difficulty accessing dental clinics (American Dental Association 2018). This legislation is also signaling the need for more highly qualified dental assistants to treat more patients and help with daily clinical and administrative responsibilities in dental offices.

As with most professions, dental assisting has a few different career pathways. The two primary pathways are achieved by earning an associate degree or a certificate in dental assisting. Educational and professional requirements for dental assisting vary from state to state, and it is possible for professionals to hold both a degree and a certificate in dental assisting.

Candidates applying to take the certified dental assistant (CDA) certification exams must first show that they have completed a CODA-accredited dental assisting program or be able to prove equivalent preparation through related career experience. Certified dental assistants (CDAs) make an average of $2 more per hour than non-certified dental assistants (DANB 2019).

When considering all available dental assisting educational and certification options, knowing how each career pathway differs can help prospective dental assistants enter a program suitable to their career goals.

Read on to learn more about the professional pathways for becoming a dental assistant outlined in the table below.

Dental Assisting Associate Degree Dental Assisting Certificate
Description

Dental assistant programs offering two-year associate’s degrees are a great option for entry-level professionals with a high school diploma or GED who want to gain knowledge, clinical experience, and enter the workforce within two years.

Graduates from CODA-accredited dental assisting programs can stand out in competitive job markets with both a degree and a certificate in dental assisting.

Dental assistants with two-year degrees are halfway to completion of a four-year degree.

Dental assistant certificate programs offer two benefits: a relatively quick course of study to learn professional skills and access to entry-level jobs upon completion. This option is ideal for new professionals who want to try out working in the field of dentistry before commiting to a two- or four-year program in dental assisting or dental hygiene.

Certificate-holders can pivot into related allied health occupations by pursuing two-year degrees or four-year degrees in related fields.

Educational Requirements for DANB Certification

Graduate with a two-year associate’s degree in dental assisting.

Option 1: Graduate from an educational program that takes nine to 11 months to complete and leads to a diploma or a certificate in dental assisting.

Option 2: Complete two years of supervised on-the-job training as a dental assistant (only allowed in some states).

Option 3: Complete military training as a dental assistant and two years of supervised on-the-job training.

Educational Institutions
  • Community colleges
  • Dental schools
  • Technical institutes
  • Universities
  • Vocational schools
  • Community colleges
  • Dental schools
  • Dental clinics
  • Military training
  • Technical institutes
  • Universities
  • Vocational schools
Duration

24 months

Option 1: Six to eleven months

Options 2 & 3: Two years

State/Local Requirements

Requirements vary by state

Requirements vary by state

Typical Coursework
  • Chairside assisting
  • Community health
  • Dental radiography
  • Dental office administration
  • Dental materials
  • Dental pharmacology
  • Introduction to oral health professions
  • Office management
  • Oral anatomy
  • CPR and first aid
  • Chairside assisting
  • Dental radiography
  • Dental office administration
  • Dental materials
  • Dental pharmacology
  • Oral anatomy
  • CPR and first aid
Program Accreditation Body

Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) for dental assisting academic programs

Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) for dental assistant certificate academic programs

Featured On-Campus Programs
Featured Online Programs
Skills Learned The skills learned in dental assisting degree and certificate programs are similar, but due to the longer duration of dental assisting degree programs (24 months v. six to 11 months), students learn the following skills more in-depth in the classroom and clinical settings of dental assisting degree programs:
  • Application of fluoride and sealants
  • Customer service
  • CPR & first aid
  • Explaining proper dental hygiene practices to patients
  • Examination prep and clean up
  • Equipment sterilization
  • Four-handed dentistry (i.e., assisting a dentist or dental hygienist with a procedure)
  • Hands-on clinical learning
  • Office administration (e.g. appointment scheduling, creating and maintaining records, ordering supplies)
  • Taking dental x-rays
  • Application of fluoride and sealants
  • Customer service
  • CPR & first aid
  • Explaining proper dental hygiene practices to patients
  • Examination prep and clean up
  • Equipment sterilization
  • Four-handed dentistry (assisting a dentist or dental hygienist with a procedure)
  • Hands-on clinical learning
  • Office administration (e.g. appointment scheduling, creating and maintaining records, ordering supplies)
  • Taking dental x-rays
Salary

$38,660 per year (BLS 2018), although candidates with associate degrees may be eligible for greater pay

$38,660 per year (BLS 2018)

Future Options
  • Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification through DANB
  • Registered Dental Assistant certification (RDA)
  • Dental assisting specialization certificate coursework in an allied dental assisting field (e.g. orthodontics, oral surgery, etc.) Certification (RDA)
  • Dental hygiene bachelor’s degree (completion of a four-year degree and state-level licensure)
  • Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification through DANB
  • National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA) Certification
  • Registered Dental Assistant certification (RDA)
  • Dental assistant two-year associate’s degree
  • Dental assisting specialization certificate coursework in an allied dental assisting field (e.g. orthodontics, oral surgery, etc.)
  • Dental hygienist bachelor’s degree (completion of a four-year degree and state-level licensure)