Best Dental Assisting Programs

Oct 20, 2021

What is a Certificate Program in Dental Assisting?

Students who are looking to begin their career and are interested in the field of dentistry can pursue a certificate program in dental assisting. These programs help prepare students to assist dentists in various chairside procedures, as well as perform some office and basic laboratory procedures. A certificate program in the field provides students with the necessary training to qualify for entry-level positions in hospitals, private practices, clinics, and other settings. Coursework typically consists of both educational and clinical instruction to give students the hands-on training and experience they need. Therefore, most of these programs are only available on-campus, but there are some hybrid programs that may have students complete hands-on learning requirements on the weekends or other specified times. Students who complete these certificate programs usually qualify to take their state-specific certification or licensure exam(s) to work as a dental assistant. Here, we will discuss details of dental assisting certificate programs to help students determine if the program is right for them.

What is the Difference Between a Certificate and a Degree in Dental Assisting?

The scope and time to program completion are two of the biggest differences between a certificate and a degree in dental assisting. Degree programs in dental assisting are most commonly offered at the associate level, as Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degrees. These degree programs help prepare students for certification exams, but may also prepare students for positions that take on more responsibilities or complex tasks than those with only a certificate in the field. The coursework for associate degree programs in dental assisting includes general education courses and core dental assisting classes. These additional courses require more time to complete, so associate degree programs often take about twice as long to complete as certificate programs in dental assisting.

Should I Get a Certificate in Dental Assisting?

Students should pursue a certificate and career in dental assisting if they are interested in the field of dentistry, but may not be quite ready or sure if they want to commit to years of schooling. Interested students should enjoy working with their hands, communicating with patients, and performing both administrative and laboratory-based duties. Certificate programs in the field are short, but still qualify students to work directly with patients and perform a number of tasks within a dentist's office. Completing a shorter program not only saves time, but can also save money, as students will be paying for fewer credit hours. Earning a certificate in dental assisting is a great way to meet the requirements for an entry-level position as a dental assistant, but it also opens the door to pursuing additional education if students become interested in moving to more advanced positions, such as a dental hygienist or dentist. Certificate programs in dental assisting are widely available and some even try to provide students with some flexibility in their schedule through hybrid formats.

What is the Difference Between a Certificate Program, a Professional Certification, and a License in Dental Assisting?

A certificate program in dental assisting is the first step in becoming a dental assistant, as this program provides the necessary academic and hands-on training to begin the professional certification process. The certification process for becoming a dental assistant varies between states. In general, students need to pass some standard certification exams and may need to pass an additional state-sponsored exam that awards licensure and adds students to the state dental assistant registry. Typically, to perform certain tasks and job duties, dental assistants will earn certification from the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). Often, students take the DANB Radiation Health and Safety Exam (RHS) and the DANB Infection Control Exam (ICE). The DANB also offers the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam, which costs $450 to take. The DANB provides study materials for their exams and while all exams can be taken at a proctored testing center, there are some exams, such as the RHS and ICE exams that can also be taken through an online proctoring program. Some states, such as New York require dental assistants to take a state dental assisting exam, while other states, such as Tennessee, may require students to pass a state dentistry registration exam to be listed in the state registry.

Career Options After Completing a Certificate Program in Dental Assisting

While there are a variety of dental professions available, most certificates in the field of dental assisting will lead to a job as a dental assistant. Degree programs in dental assisting may also lead to a career as a dental assistant, but these students may be qualified to perform additional skills. Certificate programs in dental assisting prepare students to take x-rays, communicate with patients, assist dentists, pre-fit crowns and other equipment, clean and sterilize equipment, and help manage dental emergencies. Students who complete their certificate program in the field can sit for certification exams such as the DANB Radiation Health and Safety Exam and the DANB Infection Control Exam, as well as any state-required dental assisting registry exam. While most students with a certificate in dental assisting work as dental assistants, there are other entry-level career options available as well.

Dental Assistant

Those wanting to start a career in dental assisting usually need to complete an appropriate education program, such as a dental assisting adult education program or certificate program. Some states may only require on-the-job training for these professionals. The job duties of dental assistants vary by employer, but they may help maintain patient records, schedule patients, process x-rays, clean equipment, help prepare patients for procedures, and more. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a median annual salary for dental assistants of $41,180 in May 2020.

Dental and Ophthalmic Laboratory Technician and Medical Appliance Technician

Dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians and medical appliance technicians need to have at least a high school diploma. These professionals also need to undergo on-the-job training to learn the necessary skills. States usually do not require professional certification, but some technicians pursue specialty certifications in the field to demonstrate their expertise. These technicians help build and repair medical appliances and devices, such as crowns, dentures, and bridges. This requires them to select, shape, and adjust materials to work and fit properly. The BLS reported that dental laboratory technicians made a median annual salary of $38,620 in May 2020.

Medical Assistant

Medical assistants generally need to have a certificate or other post-secondary award, but some can enter the field with only a high school diploma. Those with only a high school diploma must complete some on-the-job training and typically, medical assistants need to meet state requirements and pass a certification exam to practice. Medical assistants help record patient histories, prepare patients for procedures, schedule appointments, and more. The BLS reported that medical assistants made a median annual salary of $35,850, in May 2020.

Courses for a Certificate Program in Dental Assisting

Coursework for certificate programs in dental assisting is typically specific to the field and does not include general education courses. However, students could be required to take broad courses, such as composition or anatomy and physiology, that provide skills used in dental assisting. Some programs conclude with a capstone course or other hands-on learning experiences, such as an internship or practicum. Courses in these certificate programs often include hands-on learning and simulations to help students practice the actual skills utilized in a position as a dental assistant. This may be accomplished through a separate lab course where students can practice skills for chairside procedures and lab procedures. Other possible courses for these certificate programs include:

  • Dental radiography
  • Dental assisting
  • Dental office management
  • Dental lab procedures
  • Preventative dental assisting

Dental Science

Depending on the program, students may take one or more courses in dental science. Students who take more than one course in the field generally take an introductory course and an advanced course in dental science. Courses in dental science focus on oral anatomy and physiology, and how oral care can affect overall wellness. These courses are usually lectures.

Dental Materials

Courses in dental materials explore the different materials and tools used in dentistry. Some programs will include laboratory procedures that pertain to handling different types of materials, such as gypsum. Students are also likely to study sealant material, impression materials, waxes, restorative materials, and more. These courses are typically lecture-based, but some may include a lab section.

How Long Does a Certificate Program in Dental Assisting Take?

Most certificate programs in dental assisting can be completed in one year. Some certificate programs allow students to finish in slightly less than one year, but in general, students take at least two full semesters and a summer or intersession semester to complete the program. These programs may vary between 31 and 45 credits of coursework, which can also affect the time to completion. These programs are typically designed to be full-time, and often have a path laid out for students that outlines when to take courses to finish on time.

How to Choose a Certificate Program in Dental Assisting

There are many different factors that students can use to compare dental assisting certificate programs in order to find the best fit. Students may want to begin by considering the location of their program. Not only do some students want to take a program close to home or the place of their work, but usually these certificate programs are designed to help students meet a specific state's dental assisting requirements. Therefore, students may want to consider taking a certificate program in the state in which they want to work. Many students want to ensure that they have plenty of hands-on learning experiences to help prepare for professional certification, so finding a program that also offers clinical and laboratory experiences, simulation exercises, internships, or practicum experiences would be beneficial. An on-campus program could also be preferred by some students over a hybrid program, depending on students' learning styles.

Other considerations for deciding which certificate program in dental assisting to enroll in could be more school-based. For instance, many students need to compare the tuition rates and fees of different schools and factor in any available scholarships or financial aid to find a program that fits within their budget. Students attending on-campus programs may also have preferences for school activities or amenities.

How to Get into Dental Assisting Certificate Programs

The admissions process for certificate programs in dental assisting are slightly different depending on the institution. In general, applicants to these certificate programs must have at least a high school diploma. Some programs have different admissions standards depending on the type of student. For instance, high school graduates may need to have a minimum GPA of 3.6, while a college transfer student needs to have a minimum GPA of 2.5. Some programs may also recommend that students have at least some high school coursework in chemistry and biology. Other programs require students to test and place at a certain math and English level. Due to the medical nature of the field, applicants are often required to meet a range of additional health-related requirements. For example, programs could require students to have CPR certification, complete a physical exam, and have Hepatitis B immunization. Finally, some programs require applicants to be a member of the American Dental Assistants Association and have malpractice insurance.

Cost of a Dental Assisting Certificate Program

The total cost of a dental assisting certificate program can be difficult to calculate. Students need to consider factors such as tuition, fees, books, materials, living expenses, and more. A quick comparison of schools can usually be accomplished by first looking at tuition rates. However, rates often vary based on the classification of students. For example, in-state students usually have lower tuition rates than out-of-state students and rates may vary for full-time and part-time students. Types of courses can also have different rates, such as online courses having different tuition rates than on-campus courses. In addition to tuition rates, students also need to consider and compare fees. Different schools have different fees, but students could be responsible for paying fees such as student life, technology, laboratory, health insurance, and activity fees.

After students have compared tuition rates and fees, they may need to check for any additional costs for the dental assisting certificate program. For instance, some programs require students to provide their own transportation to hands-on learning experiences, such as internships, which can be an additional cost. Students in these certificate programs also often need more materials in addition to the required books for courses. Students could be required to get clinical uniforms, a lab coat, protective eyewear, and other school supplies. Finally, students should also factor in any living expenses, such as on-campus housing or meal plans.

Financial Aid and Scholarship Resources for Dental Assisting Certificate Programs

With all of these different costs for earning a certificate in dental assisting, many students need to utilize financial aid to help pay for their education. Students can start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) each academic year that they are in school to see if they qualify for state or federal loans and grants. Some schools may also offer different kinds of discounts for different populations of students. For instance, some schools waive fees for state employees, offer discounts for public school teachers or state employee dependents, and provide discounts for students based off of their Estimated Federal Aid Worksheet.

Another great option for financial aid is scholarships, as these awards do not have to be repaid and are available from a wide range of sources for an array of reasons. Sometimes outside organizations provide subject-specific scholarships to help the next generation earn their education. For example, the Pacific Dental Services Foundation provides the Dr. Carolyn Ghazal Dental Assistant Scholarship for aspiring dental assistants. This scholarship awards up to $5,000 to dental assisting students demonstrating financial need. Sometimes, schools that offer dental assisting programs have their own scholarships available that may or may not be dental assisting-related. For instance, Vol State Community College offers Presidential Scholarships and VSCC Academic Service Scholarships that are based on academic merit and vary in amounts.

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