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Dental Assistant Programs: Degrees, Certificates & Diplomas

Take a look at your dental assisting degree options and school information.

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Home » Dental Assisting » Education

What Degree Levels are Available?

The degree levels available in the dental assisting field vary by job title; dental hygienists often require a higher degree than dental assistants or technicians.

The upside is there’s always room for advancement if you’re willing to further your education, and advancement can lead to better pay and opportunities.

Fortunately, there are a variety of paths to becoming a dental assistant, so you’ll be able to find one that suits your schedule and financial situation.

Dental Assisting Certificate or Diploma

Certificate and diploma programs generally prepare you to start your dental assistant career after about nine to 11 months of study. You’ll find these programs at career colleges and community colleges. If you want to enter the job field quickly, career college programs often have a faster time to completion.

Associate’s Degree

Associate’s degree programs in dental assisting last two years and provide other general education curriculum. Both career colleges and community colleges offer associate’s degree programs. If you’re planning on advancing your education later in your career, the credits you earn while in your associate’s program will count toward earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

What Will I Learn in My Courses?

Dental assistants need to know everything from office administration to chair side assisting. A good school will give you all the necessary skills you will need to begin your dental assistant career. You can also find programs that will provide you some practical experience before entering the workforce. Courses vary by program, but some subjects that dental technicians will study include:

  • Dental anatomy
  • Dental ceramics
  • Dentures
  • Computer skills
  • Art-related classes (contouring, molding, waxing)

Your course list will revolve more around learning skills that will be applicable in a dentist’s office. These courses might include:

  • Dental hygiene
  • Periodontal diseases
  • Using and caring for dental tools
  • Computer skills
  • Dental office management
  • Taking and developing X-rays

Outside of basic classes like these, the courses in a dental hygienist program versus a dental assistant program will focus on different skills, since the two jobs have some differing responsibilities.

Accredited Dental Assisting Programs

Accredited dental assisting programs include certificate or diploma programs that require 9–11 months of study, or associate’s degree programs that last two years. These programs are offered at institutions such as technical and community colleges, vocational schools, and universities. 

School Accreditation and Why It’s Important

For dental assisting programs, accreditation emphasizes a voluntary commitment to quality assurance. To earn this credential, a program must submit to an intense evaluation by an independent accrediting body. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) is the organization responsible for accrediting these and other dental education programs.

As a prospective student, selecting an accredited dental assisting program can help you:

  • Feel assured that you’re receiving a quality education
  • Earn credits that can be transferable between schools
  • Create employer confidence in your educational credentials
  • Provide access to dental assisting scholarships and government financial aid

Attending an accredited program is also important if you wish to advance your education, like pursuing a higher degree in dental hygiene. Though related, key differences exist between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist.

While dental assistants help the team with tasks such as sterilizing equipment, taking X-rays, and assisting patients before and after procedures, dental hygienists are qualified to take on more advanced roles. Responsibilities might include performing cleanings, administering anesthesia, removing sutures, and charting patient information for the dentist.

Can You Become a Dental Assistant Without an Accredited Degree?

You can, but it’ll take you longer to earn your certification. While not necessary, this can give you a professional advantage and likely lead to a higher salary.

Immediately following graduation from an accredited program, you’re eligible to take the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam given by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). However, if your program isn’t accredited, you’ll need to complete a minimum of 3,500 hours of approved work experience before you’ll be able to qualify.

Furthermore, though most states have no education or training requirements for entry-level dental assistants, you might need to earn a license if you want to perform more advanced duties. Depending on the requirements of your state, this may mean graduating from an accredited program, earning a set number of hours of experience, and holding your CDA certification. It’s important to understand your state’s regulations and how an accredited degree can facilitate meeting these criteria.

Are There Accredited Online Dental Assisting Programs?

Though online accredited dental assistant programs do exist, they also require onsite components. These programs allow you to complete nonclinical coursework online and attend labs and clinical instruction onsite at the school or another designated facility.

Preparing for a career in dental assisting requires hands-on learning and onsite internships. Accredited programs must meet established standards for dental assisting programs, which include a minimum of 300 hours of clinical experience in 2 or more dental offices. To qualify for this requirement, you’ll have to learn lab and preclinical skills that can only be accomplished with hands-on practice.

Accreditation Terminology

As you explore and consider your options for pursuing an accredited dental assistant program, you’re likely to encounter some key terminology. Some important organizations related to accreditation include:

ADAA: the American Dental Assistants Association

ADAA is the national professional organization for dental assistants. It’s dedicated to advancing the careers of dental assistants, providing continuing education, and promoting the dental assisting profession.

ADA: the American Dental Association

The ADA is the largest professional association of dentists in the U.S. It supports the dental profession and promotes public dental health. The ADA oversees the professional board responsible for accrediting dental assisting programs.

CODA: the ADA’s Commission on Dental Accreditation

CODA is the national accrediting agency for dental assisting and other postsecondary dental-related programs. Working under the ADA, CODA provides educational standards to help ensure that dental assisting students receive the training they need to provide effective care and succeed professionally.

DANB: Dental Assisting National Board

DANB is the nationally recognized certification agency for dental assistants. By providing high standards for testing and certification, DANB ensures that the public receives appropriate dental care from qualified individuals.

In exploring accredited programs, you’ll also find that some include preparation for different certifications and related qualifying exams offered by the DANB. These include:

  • CDA/GC: Certified Dental Assisting/General Chairside DANB’s CDA certification exam consists of three component exams. They include the GC in addition to Radiation Health and Safety (RHS) and Infection Control (ICE).
  • COA/OA: Certified Orthodontic Assistant/Orthodontic Assisting DANB’s COA certification exam consists of two component exams: OA and Infection Control (ICE).
  • CPFDA: Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant  DANB’s CPFDA certification exam consists of three component exams: Coronal Polish (CP), Sealants (SE), and Topical Fluoride (TF).
  • CRFDA: Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant DANB’s CRFDA certification exam consists of 6 component exams: Anatomy, Morphology, and Physiology (AMP); Impressions (IM); Isolation (IS); Sealants (SE); Temporaries (TMP); and Restorative Functions (RF).
  • NELDA: National Entry-Level Dental Assistant  DANB’s NELDA certification exam consists of 3 component exams: Anatomy, Morphology, and Physiology (AMP); Infection Control (ICE); and Radiation Health and Safety (RHS). It’s offered as an entry-level option for dental assistants who don’t meet the qualifications

Finding an ADA Accredited Dental Assistant Program Near You

There are about 250 CODA-accredited dental assistant programs in the U.S. You can access a searchable state-categorized database on the CODA website. In Canada, dental assisting programs are accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation of Canada (CDAC). CDA-accredited dental assisting programs are available on the organization’s website.

When researching an accredited dental assistant program, consider whether the program matches your goals and resources. Ask questions such as:

  • Does this program offer the specific curriculum I want to study?
  • Will this program apply toward my state’s requirements for certification or licensing?
  • How successful have previous graduates been in earning their credentials?
  • Is there an online or part-time component for working students?
  • Will the program assist me in finding an internship?
  • Is the school accredited to ensure quality and eligibility for federal financial aid?
  • Can I speak to recent graduates about their experiences?
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