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Dental assistants are essential in dental practices, helping with administrative, customer service, and clerical responsibilities. Students can earn an associate degree or post-secondary certificate in dental assisting, enabling them to enter this fast-growing field and launch a promising career.

Employment of dental assistants is predicted to grow by 7% over the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The agency reports that there will be, on average, 55,100 new positions available each year. The median annual salary for dental assistants is $46,540. Dental hygienists, who earn a median annual salary of $87,530, are also in demand.

Students who pursue an associate degree in dental assisting can expect to earn their degree in 2-3 years, depending on whether they enroll full-time or part-time. Certificate programs tend to be shorter, taking 1-2 years to complete, depending on the total number of credits the program requires. The cost for a dental assistant program varies based on the number of credits the program requires and whether the school is a public or private institution.

How to Choose a Dental Assistant Program

Choose your area of study

The first step in selecting a dental assistant program is deciding whether you want a program that awards a certificate or an associate degree. A post-secondary certificate is the minimum education required for certification as a dental assistant, but having an associate degree can increase your earning potential and prepare you for further undergraduate study. Consider how much time you want to spend in school before entering the workforce. Dental assistant certificate programs typically take about one year to complete, while most associate degree programs are two years.

Also, consider how a dental assistant program will fit into your life. Can you attend classes during regular business hours on weekdays or do you need a program with evening and weekend classes? Are you enrolling full-time or part-time? Establishing these parameters will help you narrow your search as you begin looking at available programs.

Research schools and programs

Start researching schools and programs by visiting their websites, where you’ll find key information like program curriculum, cost, financial aid, faculty bios, admissions requirements, and more. If you have questions, contact the school’s admissions office to speak to an admissions counselor. Virtual and in-person information sessions and open houses are also opportunities to gain more insight into whether a program is a good fit.

Asking the following questions can help you learn more about a program:

  • What does the program’s curriculum include? Does it align with your interests and goals?
  • Does the program award an associate degree or a certificate?
  • Does the program meet the Dental Assisting National Board’s national and state educational standards for professional certification?
  • Is there an experiential learning component, such as an internship?
  • Who are the faculty members, and what are their qualifications?
  • What are the admission requirements?
  • How much does the program cost, and what financial aid options are available?
  • Does the school have regional accreditation from a recognized accrediting agency?

Prepare for applications

The application processes for dental assistant programs will vary by school, so contact the admissions office for the programs you’re considering for the most accurate information about how to apply. Also, confirm application and enrollment deadlines. Some programs have multiple start terms and enroll new students on a rolling basis, while others only offer one or two start terms per year and have hard-and-fast application deadlines.

Students should prepare the following to submit with their dental assistant program application:

  • Completed application and required application fee
  • Official transcripts from high school or GED program
  • Letter(s) of recommendation
  • Personal statement
  • Resume
  • SAT or ACT scores

Select your program

Once you have a shortlist of dental assistant programs you’re considering, compare them based on the criteria you outlined in step one. If several programs meet your needs, you can apply to all of them and select one based on where you’re accepted. Some things to consider when choosing a program include cost and available financial aid, curriculum, faculty areas of expertise, and completion time.

Determine how you’ll pay for your certificate or degree

As part of your research, collect information about how much programs cost and what forms of financial aid are available. While most associate degree programs are eligible for financial assistance through the Federal Student Aid program, not all certificate programs are. If you’re planning on using this type of financial aid, which includes federal student loans and grants, to pay for a certificate program, confirm that your selected program is eligible. Financial aid counselors can provide the most accurate information about a program’s cost and financial aid eligibility.

Students who want to be considered for federal student loans and other forms of aid must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Schools use the information from this application to determine eligibility for need-based aid like federal student loans, grants, scholarships, and more. Schools may also offer financial support in the form of merit-based scholarships.

Other sources of financial support include private education loans, scholarships, and employer tuition assistance benefits for students who are working while getting their dental assistant education.

Best 50 Accredited Dental Assistant Degree Programs

Best Dental Assistant Degree Programs_2024 badge

Sacramento City College

Allan Hancock Community College

Cypress College

Ozarks Technical Community College

Del Mar College

Sinclair College

Rochester Community and Technical College

Anne Arundel Community College

Lake Area Technical College

Pasadena City College

Pima Community College

Western Iowa Tech Community College

Phoenix College

Middlesex Community College

Odessa College

Cerritos College

Monroe Community College

Dental Assistant Academy of Chicago

Minneapolis Community and Technical College

Mountainland Technical College

North Dakota State College of Science

Discover More Options

How we rank schools

We reviewed many dental assistant programs, including certificate, diploma, and associate degree programs. Our list includes online, in-person, and hybrid options, although these online programs frequently have an in-person component.

All of the programs listed have regional accreditation, and many also have programmatic accreditation from the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). Regional and CODA accreditation are generally the two most widely respected accreditation credentials in this field.

We evaluated each program on the basis of flexibility, faculty, course strength, cost, and reputation. Then, we calculated the Intelligent Score for each program on a scale from 0 to 100. For a more extensive explanation, check out Our Ranking Methodology.

What Can You Expect From a Dental Assistant Degree Program?

Professional dental assistants perform a variety of tasks related to both dental care and office management. Dental assistant certificate and degree programs prepare students for these responsibilities with lectures, demonstrations, guided practice, written and reading assignments, and hands-on learning experiences.

Coursework covers basic bio-dental science and dental assisting practices, including terminology, human anatomy and physiology, dental assisting theory, and specialty branches of dentistry. Students also learn technical skills such as infection control, proper disposal of hazardous materials, dental radiography, dental screening, and more. Programs also include an administrative component, with students learning how dental practices function and how to perform tasks like patient management, scheduling, and charting. Internships at dental practices are common to give students hands-on experience in professional settings. While certificate programs focus exclusively on dental assistant coursework, associate degree programs include general education requirements in areas like English, math, and humanities.

Potential courses you’ll take in a dental assistant degree program

  • Basic Dental Assisting Skills: Prepares students to provide patient care with emphasis on diagnostic, restorative, and specialty branches of dentistry, with topics including infection control, management of hazardous materials, emergency medical procedures, and management of pain and anxiety.
  • Dental Assisting Administrative Skills: Introduces students to the foundational administrative skills utilized in the dental office, including numbering systems, charting, cavity classifications, and treatment planning as well as strategies for effective communication skills as they relate to patient management, scheduling, recall systems, and other related administrative duties.
  • Clinical Dental Procedures: Focuses on intraoral procedures, including temporary crowns and temporary restorations, as well as clinical procedures performed by Registered Dental Assistants.
  • Dental Assisting Radiography: Provides students with technical training in exposing radiographs in a dental office setting, with topics including properties of X-rays, the dental X-ray machine, radiation effects, radiation safety, digital imaging, dental films, and the processing of radiographs.
  • Healthcare Ethics: Emphasizes the use of sound ethical practices in healthcare as they relate to the care of clients and interactions with peers, colleagues, and team members. Frameworks are provided for understanding the types of ethical challenges in healthcare and the difficult decisions that need to be made.

Dental Assistant Degree Program Frequently Asked Questions

How do I apply to a dental assistant degree program?

For guidelines for applying to a specific dental assistant certificate or degree program, refer to the school’s website or speak to an admissions counselor, as application procedures vary by institution.

Some schools don’t have a full application process for certificate programs, allowing students to enroll directly by submitting a registration fee and providing transcripts from previously attended institutions. Associate degree programs typically require a full application, including transcripts, letters of recommendation, personal statement, resume, and SAT or ACT scores.

The most common way for students to apply to post-secondary programs is via an admissions portal on the school’s website, but confirm a school’s protocols before beginning your application.

How much does a dental assistant degree program cost?

The cost of a dental assistant program varies based on what type of program and institution a student attends. Students who attend an in-state public institution can expect a lower tuition rate than out-of-state students at a public college. For example, California residents pay $46 per credit hour for the dental assistant program at Pasadena City College, while non-residents pay $414 per credit hour.

The number of credits a student must earn for their program also factors into the overall cost. Associate degrees require a minimum of 60 credits, while certificate programs can range from 13 to 45 credits.

For the most specific and accurate information about the cost of a dental assistant program, contact the school’s financial aid office and speak to a financial aid counselor.

How long does it take to earn a dental assistant degree?

A 60-credit associate degree in dental assisting typically takes two years of full-time study to complete. Part-time students may take an additional year or more to finish their program. Because certificates don’t have a minimum credit requirement, there’s more variation in the length of these programs. Some can take as few as one semester to finish, while others may take a year or more. For the most specific information about program completion time, speak to a program representative about how long students take to earn their dental assisting certificate.

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