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Complete Guide to Online Dental Assistant Programs

By Michael McCarthy | Updated 8/25/2022
Quick Facts
Accreditation: CODA
Average Tuition: $16,943
Alumni Salary: $24,220

In modern dentistry, dental assistants have become indispensable for high-quality oral care. Many dental schools today are training dentists in the method of four-handed dentistry, where a dental assistant and dentist work together to more efficiently perform clinical tasks. Online dental assistant programs prepare students for the various tasks related to the position, including sterilizing and preparing instruments for a patient's clinical visit, greeting new patients, and preparing patients in the dental chair. They can remove oral sutures, process X-rays, make oral casts, and perform a variety of other clinical tasks. Some dental assistants also perform administrative duties, such as answering phones and scheduling patient appointments.  

Many states have licensure and certification requirements for dental assistants, although the specific requirements vary by state. Some states require dental assistants to graduate from a Commission on Dental Accreditation-accredited dental assisting program and pass an exam to obtain a license.

Find an Online Degree:
Full List Accreditation Annual Tuition Recommend Rate
Full List (5)
Penn Foster - Healthcare DEAC Not Provided 60% (25 reviews)
23 Programs, 1 Certificate in Dental Assistant (view all)
23 Programs, 1 Certificate in Dental Assistant
  • Dental Assistant (Diploma)
Penn Foster College DEAC Not Provided 58% (235 reviews)
47 Programs, 1 Certificate in Dental Assistant (view all)
47 Programs, 1 Certificate in Dental Assistant
  • Dental Assistant
Hudson Valley Community College MSCHE $10,764 Add Review
23 Programs, 1 Certificate in Dental Assistant (view all)
23 Programs, 1 Certificate in Dental Assistant
  • Certificate of Dental Assisting
Monroe Community College MSCHE $10,368 50% (2 reviews)
8 Programs, 1 Certificate in Dental Assistant (view all)
8 Programs, 1 Certificate in Dental Assistant
  • Certificate in Dental Assisting
Wiregrass Georgia Technical College SACS COC $5,552 100% (1 reviews)
25 Programs, 3 Certificate in Dental Assistant (view all)
25 Programs, 3 Certificate in Dental Assistant
  • Technical Certificate of Credit in Basic Dental Assisting
  • Technical Certificate of Credit in Dental Office Aide
  • Technical Certificate of Credit in Dental Office Assistant

What Is an Online Dental Assistant Program?

Dental assistant certificate programs cover the knowledge and skills necessary for a career as a dental assistant. Instructors typically teach about oral health, dental anatomy, diagnostic tests, dental procedures, and office administration.

Online programs use learning management systems that let you sign in at your convenience to access assignments, readings, discussion forums, and other resources. The most common online learning format is asynchronous, meaning that classes have no live meetings. Some courses have weekly deadlines, whereas others are self-paced — you can complete coursework whenever you want as long as you finish by the end of the term.

Dental assisting is a clinical patient care role, so most programs require you to complete an in-person field placement at a dental office in your community.

Dental assisting is a clinical patient care role, so most programs require you to complete an in-person field placement at a dental office in your community. This real-world experience is necessary for programs to earn accreditation through the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CDA), which certifies the quality of dental assistant certificates.

How Long Are Most Dental Assistant Programs?

Most schools design their dental assistant certificates to last one academic year. This includes the clinical placement, as long as you complete your required hours on time.

Admission Requirements

You need a high school diploma or GED equivalent to apply to a certificate program. Some schools may require college placement test scores — either the ACT or SAT — but most don't ask for specific prerequisite courses.

Most colleges require a physical examination to ensure that you can handle the manual tasks that might be required of a dental assistant. Schools also commonly ask for proof of CPR certification before enrollment, though you may be able to furnish this by the end of your certificate program.

For more information about common application materials, check out our Guide to Applying to Online College or University.

Common Courses in an Online Dental Assistant Program

As with medical assistants, dental assistants perform a mix of clinical and administrative tasks, and their program curricula reflect this. Most programs offer a similar curriculum because they're short and usually aim to meet CDA accreditation standards.

We've listed a few common courses below to give a flavor of what to expect during dental assistant studies.

Dental Office Management

Faculty discuss the administrative procedures crucial to keeping a dental clinic running. Topics might include billing, documentation, ordering dental materials, patient confidentiality, and chairside communication.

Dental Radiology

Students learn the most common radiography methods in dentistry. Professors typically lecture on X-rays, radiation safety, intraoral and extraoral techniques, and image interpretation.

Infection Control and Microbes

This course describes the biology of disease transmission and proven methods for preventing infections.

Oral Anatomy

Enrollees study the structures of the head and mouth. Topics usually include musculoskeletal function, normal head and neck physiology, dental and anatomy.

Preventive Dentistry

This class covers the theories behind regular checkups and patient assessment, including fluoride, diet, plaque control, at-home dental care, and common dental diseases.

What Are the Requirements to Be a Dental Assistant?

Requirements vary by state, but the two most common are related to education and licensure.

What Education Do You Need to Be a Dental Assistant?

To meet the dental assistant education requirements, you must earn an accredited certificate in dental assisting. In a few states, the certificate isn't technically a legal requirement to practice. However, it's very unlikely that a licensed dentist will hire you without this education.

Licensing Requirements for Dental Assistants

Most states make you test for a license — also called registration in some states — before allowing you to practice. To qualify, you need to provide your certificate diploma from a CDA-accredited program.

Some states have tiered levels of licensure. For example, dental assistants in some states can handle basic duties without any license at all, but they need advanced licenses to perform coronal polishing or assist with oral surgery. The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) maintains a helpful page that details each state's requirements for becoming a licensed or registered dental assistant.

Career Overview for Dental Assistants

The virtue of a certificate program is that it's a fast track to a dental assistant career. Whether you stay in this role for a short time or for many years, it's useful to understand the pay and job opportunities in the field.

What Is the Average Salary for a Dental Assistant?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculates the median annual salary for dental assistants as $38,660. Government jobs tend to pay the highest — $46,090 per year.

Interestingly, Minnesota is the top-paying state for dental assistants, despite being near the 50th percentile for cost of living. This means that dental assistants in Minnesota can stretch their salaries further than in other relatively high-paying states such as Massachusetts and Alaska.

What Is the Job Outlook for Dental Assistants?

The job growth rate for dental assistants is 11% in the 2020-2030 period, which is higher than the 8% rate for all U.S. jobs combined. The BLS mentions that advances in dental health care and technology will allow more people to keep their teeth as they age, which may help bolster dental assistant employment rates.

The job growth rate for dental assistants is 11% in the 2020-2030 period, which is higher than the 8% rate for all U.S. jobs combined.

Is an Online Dental Assistant Program Worth It?

Nobody but you can answer this question, because everyone's personal and financial circumstances are different. Read on for some of the possible pros and cons of studying dental assisting.

Potential Benefits

Earning a year-long certificate may get you into the workforce quickly. You'll also be saddled with less student debt than if you'd pursued an associate or bachelor's degree. Some dental assistant programs even let you transfer credits to a dental hygienist program at the same school —faq you might choose this route if you're considering a dental hygiene career so you can start working full time as an assistant while you pursue a degree.

Dental assisting is a relatively fast-growing profession with high levels of job satisfaction. An 11% growth rate is strong, but even that doesn't account for the 44,000 job openings that the BLS expects each year due to regular turnover. In addition, a large majority of dental assistants report satisfaction with their work.

Potential Drawbacks

Dental assistant certificates only qualify you for one relatively low-paying occupation. The median yearly pay for professionals with some college and no degree is $45,604, whereas dental assistants make a median wage of $38,660. Even high school graduates with no postsecondary certificate make $40,612 per year on the median.

The physical part of the job could present problems over time. Dental assistants may need to bend over a dentist's chair for extended periods, and they need to be careful to avoid excess radiation exposure from imaging equipment. In addition, there's a frequent risk of infection from patients. Dental practices have learned to mitigate all of these risks, but they're worth noting.

FAQS About Online Dental Assistant Programs

What Does A Dental Assistant Do?

There are two sides to a dental assistant's job: helping dentists and hygienists with cleaning and procedures, and doing administrative tasks around the office. The time spent on these duties isn't necessarily an even split, and individual employers may call for more duties in one realm over the other.

What Colleges Offer Dental Assistant Programs?

You can find most dental assistant certificates at community colleges and trade or vocational schools, but some four-year colleges also offer programs.

How Hard Is a Dental Assistant Program?

It depends on your skills and abilities. For example, you might have an aptitude for the dental science part of the curriculum but more trouble with the organization required for office management classes. Another student could have the opposite experience. 

Most of a dental assisting curriculum focuses on the clinical side of the job, so you may have a harder time if you struggle with scientific subjects.

What Is the Highest Pay for a Dental Assistant?

According to the BLS, 10% of dental assistants earn more than $59,540. In general, the highest paid professionals are those with the most experience in the job, so you're unlikely to earn in the 90th percentile at the entry level. The DANB also claims that assistants who earn one of its certifications earn more than uncertified employees, so this is worth considering. 

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