Medical Assistant Associate Degree vs. Diploma / Certificate

A growing number of aspiring healthcare workers are pursuing a career in medical assisting. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021) reported that there were 710,200 medical assistants working nationwide, with an additional 139,200 jobs expected to be added between 2019 and 2029—a 19 percent increase. This career path is an excellent option for those who wish to serve the medical industry without the significant time and financial expense associated with a full medical degree.

Medical assistants work in hospitals, physicians’ offices, outpatient care centers, and other medical clinics. They can perform administrative tasks such as assisting with billing, charting, answering phones, and scheduling patients, or they may work directly with patients taking vital signs, assisting with medical procedures, and documenting medical history. Regardless of where they work, medical assistants are essential to a smooth-running healthcare facility.

Those who are interested in becoming a medical assistant may complete additional education before entering the workforce, generally either through the pursuit of an associate degree or by obtaining a certificate or diploma. Because the decision between these two options can have such a significant impact on your future, below is a list of similarities, differences, and overlaps, as well as a side-by-side comparison of these choices.

Medical Assistant Degree vs. Certificate Program – Similarities, Differences, and Overlap

There are a number of similarities between an associate degree and a certificate or diploma in medical assisting. To begin with, they each may be viable paths towards becoming a medical assistant. Generally, either of these options will provide a certain level of knowledge and expertise not possessed by those who solely have on-the-job training. While a degree or diploma is not necessary to work as a medical assistant, it is suggested for those who wish to be successful in their careers.

On the other hand, a number of differences are readily apparent. For example, while the specifics of each program vary based on the institution, a medical assisting associate degree will generally take longer than the time it requires to obtain a certificate. An associate degree often takes two years to complete, while a diploma or certificate can be achieved in one year or less. Furthermore, while this is not a guarantee, those with an associate degree may be looked upon more favorably by future employers than those with only a diploma since those with an associate degree will likely have a broader knowledge and expertise in this field.

Another difference can be in the cost of the program. Diploma or certificate programs tend to cost significantly less because they are shorter programs. Associate degree medical assistant programs, on the other hand, tend to cost a bit more as these programs take approximately two years to complete and require more classes than a diploma or certificate. For example, El Paso Community College costs $221 per credit hour for nonresident students. Students must complete 60 credits in order to graduate with an associate’s in applied science in medical assisting technology for an approximate cost of $13,260 for tuition alone. By contrast, at Pima Community College, the medical assistant certificate program only requires 27 credit at the cost of $308.50 per credit, for a total tuition cost of $8329.50

Most notably, the overlap between these options includes the required coursework. Those who pursue an associate degree and those who obtain a diploma or certificate will still take courses on similar topics, such as human anatomy, medical terminology, pharmacology, medication administration, first aid, office practices, and many more. In addition, the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), the main national certifying organization for these professionals, specifies that only graduates of accredited associate or certificate programs are able to take the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) exam.

Side-By-Side Comparison Chart

For prospective medical assistants considering various educational pathways, it is important to have an idea of what to expect from an associate degree or certificate program. The table below includes a comprehensive side-by-side comparison to help inform this decision.

Associate Degree Diploma/Certificate
How long does it take to obtain this level of education?

Students typically take two years to finish an associate degree with full-time study. Those who are studying part-time may need to budget an additional year or two for the successful completion of the program.

Students in this type of program will likely take up to one year for successful completion. These programs also generally require clinical work or an internship, which may add additional time at the end, depending on the school’s requirements.

What types of classes should the individual expect to take on this path?

Those in pursuit of a medical assisting associate degree should expect to take courses on the following subjects:

  • Human anatomy and physiology
  • Medical terminology
  • Lab techniques
  • Administrative procedures
  • Pharmacology
  • Medication administration

In addition to these courses, students may also be required to complete an internship or clinical studies in order to attain their degree. Furthermore, those pursuing an associate degree may also be required to take general education classes, which may include courses on mathematics, writing composition, and humanities.

Students who are pursuing a diploma or certificate in medical assisting will likely be required to take the following classes, among others:

  • Physiology and pathology
  • Pharmacology
  • Laboratory techniques and procedures
  • First aid
  • Office practices
  • Medication administration

Along with courses in medical assisting, students in some diploma programs will be required to complete clinical studies as well, although this is not always a requirement.

In what types of educational institutions is this program available?

In general, students will be able to pursue a medical assisting associate degree at a junior or community college such as the Erie Community College in Williamsville, NY.

In some cases, medical assisting programs may be available at a four-year college or university. Please note there are also online associate degrees in medical assisting.

Diploma or certificate programs in medical assisting may be offered at vocational schools or community colleges, or traditional colleges.

For example, Cabrillo College in Aptos, CA, offers a medical assisting certificate. Some hospitals provide medical assisting diploma programs as well.

What types of jobs will the individual be eligible for after completion of this program?

Upon successful completion of a medical assisting associate degree, the graduate can expect to work as a medical assistant, either in a clinical or administrative capacity (depending on the specific circumstances).

Furthermore, those students who chose to specialize in a certain field of medicine (e.g., podiatry, internal medicine) may be eligible to work in a specialist’s office, which may include a higher salary.

After completing a medical assisting diploma, the graduate may be eligible to work either as an administrative or clinical medical assistant. This is generally dependent upon the specifics of the course load that the student takes.

However, the individual may not be necessarily eligible to work in a specialist’s office until additional education is completed.

What level of salary can an individual expect after completion of this program?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021) data shows the median annual wage for medical assistants was $36,930. However, those with an associate degree may earn a salary closer to the higher end of the spectrum (90th percentile for the occupation: $50,580).

While the BLS reports that the median wage for medical assistants in 2020 was $36,930, those with only a diploma or certificate may earn closer to the lower end of the spectrum (10th percentile of the occupation: $26,930).

Will completion of this program prepare the individual for additional certifications in the field of medical assisting?

Successful attainment of a medical assisting associate degree can make the individual eligible for certification through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), as long as the program is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).

Similarly, students who successfully complete a program accredited by CAAHEP or ABHES may be eligible to sit for the examination to become a Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) through the AAMA.

Schools that offer accredited programs in medical assisting

The following is a list of schools that offer CAAHEP-accredited medical assisting associate degree programs:

The following is a list of schools that offer CAAHEP-accredited diploma programs in medical assisting:

The bottom line

Ultimately, a medical assisting associate degree can be an excellent choice for prospective students with an urge to develop a comprehensive knowledge of the field and who have additional time to budget towards education. An associate degree can show a future employer a commitment to the position and may lead to a higher starting salary.

Furthermore, those with an associate degree may enter the workforce with a greater level of expertise that can assist them in landing desirable jobs above those with only a certificate or diploma.

Pursuing a medical assisting diploma can be a solid option for those who wish to begin working in the field within a year. Those who obtain a diploma in this field can still gain an overview of relevant subjects and may remain competitive in the workforce.

While those with a diploma or certificate may not always earn as high of a starting salary as those with an associate degree, they can use the diploma or certificate as a springboard to learn the fundamentals.

Kimmy Gustafson
Kimmy Gustafson Writer

Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with a passion for sharing stories of bravery. Her love for world-traveling began when her family moved to Spain when she was six and since then, she has lived overseas extensively, visited six continents, and traveled to over 25 countries. She is fluent in Spanish and conversational in French. When not writing or parenting she can be found kiteboarding, hiking, or cooking.