Dental Hygienist Education Requirements

Usmann Farooqui

Written By: Usmaan Farooqui

Published: 6/27/2022

There are many paths to becoming a dental hygienist. In general, to work in a dental office, you will need an associate degree, clinical training, and a license to practice in your state of residence. However, if you hope to apply your skills as a dental hygienist beyond the field of dentistry, a bachelor's or master's in a related discipline is typically required.

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What Does a Dental Hygienist Do?

Dental hygienists work with patients to help improve their oral health. They inspect people's teeth and gums for common diseases, conduct regular cleanings, and provide information on how to maintain good oral hygiene. These professionals make an annual median salary of $77,810, and the number of dental hygienist jobs is expected to increase by 11% through 2030. While many work full- or part-time hours in dental offices, dental hygienists can also find employment in areas such as business, education, and research.

Dental Hygienist Education Requirements

An associate degree is the minimum level of education required to become a dental hygienist. Gaining admission to an associate or bachelor's degree program in dental hygiene typically requires:

High school diploma or GED

Completion of high school coursework in biology and math

Completion of college-level chemistry labs within the last five years

Attendance to a dental hygiene information session hosted by the college or university

Students who apply for a master's degree must have a bachelor's in dental hygiene or a related field. They also typically need at least one year of related work experience.

After completing a degree program in dental hygiene or a similar field, students must pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE) and apply for state licensure. While each jurisdiction has its own licensure requirements, most involve an education component in the form of a standardized test. Dental hygienists must also take a set number of continuing education credits to renew their state license.

Types of Dental Hygienist Degree Programs

Associate Degree Program

An associate degree program in dental hygiene takes 2-3 years to complete. Students take classes in oral anatomy, clinical practice, biochemistry, and pharmacology, gaining an understanding of various concepts related to dentistry. Overall, they learn how to identify and treat common gum and teeth diseases while also fostering the skills necessary to operate different kinds of dental equipment. An associate degree qualifies graduates to complete the NBDHE, apply for state licensure, and become practicing dental hygienists.

Bachelor's Degree Program

Like an associate degree, a bachelor's in dental hygiene covers foundational concepts in oral health. Students take many of the same classes as part of their core coursework, including areas such as microbiology and public health. Additionally, however, they complete general education courses and have the opportunity to study humanities, social science, and natural science subjects.

A bachelor's degree in dental hygiene, which can be completed in four years of full-time study, can therefore give students a rounded education, which qualifies them for additional career opportunities. For instance, graduates may go on to work as marketing professionals for pharmaceutical companies, earning a median annual salary of $133,380.

Master's Degree Program

Students need a bachelor's program in dental hygiene to pursue a graduate education in this field. A master's program takes two years of full-time study to complete, during which time students take advanced coursework in areas such as public health, epidemiology, administration, and dental ethics. Given that master's programs are designed to foster strong research and writing skills, students also take classes in proposal design, data analysis, and statistics.

A master's in dental hygiene can lead to an expanded set of employment opportunities — particularly in areas such as education and research. One example of a career path that master's graduates can follow is teaching at the college level, where they can make an annual median salary of $79,640 as postsecondary teachers.

Choosing a Dental Hygiene Degree

Given the different types of dental hygiene degrees available — and the various career opportunities they can lead to — it's beneficial to first consider your career goals and personal circumstances before deciding which educational path to take. Below are some factors that can help you decide which dental hygiene degree is right for you.

Accreditation

Regardless of the type of degree you choose, it's essential that you enroll in a program that is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation Admission (CODA). CODA is an organization that assesses the quality of dental education programs. A CODA-accredited degree meets national standards for academic excellence and is a requirement for employment in the field of dentistry.

Affordability

Annual tuition fees for dental hygiene programs can differ depending on various factors, including whether you're enrolled in a private or public institution and if you qualify for in-state tuition rates. You may also have to pay for costs, such as transportation, housing, and meal plans. Given this, it's important to select a degree program that is affordable. In most cases, applying for financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships can help you pay for school.

Career Goals

Selecting the right education can help you achieve your career goals. For instance, if you aspire to work as a dental hygienist in a dentist's office, an associate degree is the most suitable option. However, if you're interested in expanding your employability beyond clinical practices and dentistry in general, a bachelor's is often necessary. Master's degrees in dental hygiene tend to be rare, but they can prepare you for careers in sectors like education and research.

Online vs. In-Person

Many dental hygiene degrees are offered online. A distance education program can give you the flexibility to complete classes on your own time and may be an ideal choice if you're unable to relocate, work full time, or have other familial obligations. However, online learning requires self-discipline and may offer fewer opportunities to interact with peers. If you prefer a more structured education environment and are interested in networking with others, an in-person program is typically the better option.

Qualities of Dental Hygienists

Dental hygienists meet many different kinds of people on a daily basis. Aside from knowing how to operate different instruments and recognize common oral health issues, they must also interact effectively with their patients. This requires that they have soft-skills in active listening and communication.

Furthermore, given that they help patients develop tailored plans to maintain their oral health, they need to have an eye for identifying problems and their solutions. Lastly, dental hygienists are health care professionals who work with individuals that may be concerned or fearful about their oral health. It's therefore crucial that they possess a sense of empathy and the desire to help their patients.

Should You Study To Become a Dental Hygienist?

The value of a dental hygiene education will vary depending on an individual's career goals, financial means, and other obligations. It's important to first consider your personal circumstances before deciding to earn a degree in this field.

In general, however, completing an associate degree in dental hygiene can lead to a stable career in dentistry. Additionally, if you enroll in a bachelor's or master's program, it's possible to pursue opportunities in other sectors as well. But aside from improving your career prospects, studying to become a dental hygienist may also give you the chance to help others maintain or improve a significant part of their overall health. This education path is therefore a great option if you're interested in working directly with patients in a health care setting.

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