Dental hygienists are specialists who work under dentists, and who focus on cleaning teeth, examining patients to screen them for oral issues such as gingivitis, and providing general day-to-day dental care.
Demand for professionals who have focused on dental hygiene is growing, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting that demand for dental hygienists will grow by six percent between 2019 and 2029.
A licensed dental hygienist can expect to earn around $36,65 per hour, or $76,510 per year, which is far above the median annual wage for all professions.
Becoming a dental hygienist requires more training than becoming a dental assistant. Licensure is required in all states, and a hygienist will need to complete an associate degree at a minimum, with many dental hygiene students opting to pursue a bachelor’s degree for the extra career opportunities such a program offers.
To become a licensed dental hygienist, a student would need to complete a program that is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. This is the only agency that the US Department of Education recognizes for such purposes.
After completing an accredited degree, a would-be hygienist must pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination before they’re allowed to work as a dental hygienist. They’ll also need to pass the licensing exam in the state in which they’d like to work.
Pros and cons of an online school for dental hygienists
Working as a dental hygienist is an interesting career. These dental professionals work with patients who need day-to-day care for their teeth. Their job may include:
- Cleaning and polishing teeth
- Examining a person’s mouth for signs of gum disease or other issues
- Removing stains or plaque
- Applying sealants and fluorides to the teeth
- Keeping detailed dental records
- Educating patients on how to brush and floss their teeth properly
- Offering advice on general dental issues
What are the pros and cons of being a dental hygienist?
Dental hygienists usually work under the supervision of a dentist, although in some states they are able to offer basic treatments without supervision. The job can be rewarding and fulfilling. Many people who are drawn to the profession want to help people and being a hygienist is a good way to do this, since patients often leave feeling happy and confident after a treatment session.
However, there are some challenges. The work is demanding and can require long hours standing and leaning over patients while administering treatments. Some patients are nervous or in pain, and the hygienist must respond patiently and be sensitive to how the individual is feeling.
In addition, the work is mentally demanding, and the hygienist must always follow detailed protocols. Attention to detail is essential and some people can find the demands a hygienist faces to be stressful.
What dental hygienist degrees are available online?
There are many institutions offering online learning options that are accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. Most of the courses are aimed at individuals who already have some dental hygiene or dental assistant experience and who are simply looking to top up courses they’re missing in order to earn a full degree.
Programs can be completed part-time or full-time. Dental hygienists who have a strong science background and who wish to top up their associate degree to a bachelors may wish to consider a program such as that offered by Western Kentucky University, which has an accelerated learning option allowing for completion of the course in just 15 months.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks is one of the few institutions offering an entry-level degree that helps students get started in dental-related positions. Their Medical and Dental Reception program is an allied health degree that opens doors for people wishing to work in dentist’s offices. It doesn’t license a learner to be a hygienist, but it can help someone who is considering a career change into the field of dental care.
Hygienist courses include a lot of coursework and examinations, but also require practical elements. To be licensed to practice as a dental hygienist you’ll need extensive practical experience and that cannot be earned through distance learning.
Someone looking to enter the field of dental hygiene for the first time should consider studying a hybrid program or finding an institution that can place them with a local dentist’s office or clinic so they can get the supervised experience they need.
Why would someone choose to attend an online dental hygienist school over a traditional school?
Studying an online dental hygiene program makes sense if you already have an associate degree and want to upgrade your dental hygiene education to a bachelor’s, or if you have experience in some other area of dentistry and want to switch focus.
The training required to become a registered dental hygienist is rigorous, and it takes several years of study to earn a full bachelor’s degree. Someone who is already qualified to practice may not want to go back to college full-time to top up their qualifications, spending more years as a dental student, paying tens of thousands of dollars and being out of the workforce for an extended period of time.
Online dental hygienist school allows someone to keep working in a dental office in some capacity while they complete their hygiene program. They can get the education they need in a more affordable way, continue earning money while they learn, and continue to earn valuable experience in a clinical setting.
Students who complete their education online will need to be highly motivated in order to complete a program of self-study. They’re demonstrating a commitment to improving themselves, researching independently, sticking to deadlines and working in an environment where the support they receive is limited compared to that enjoyed by their on-campus peers.
The trade-off is that for making the commitment to studying remotely and sticking to it, they get the flexibility and freedom to fit their studies around other parts of their lives. This makes it ideal for mature students.
Online classes required to become a dental hygienist
It’s possible to become a dental hygienist with an Associate for Applied Science in Dental Hygiene qualification. This is a two-year degree program that is offered by many community colleges, dental schools, and vocational institutions.
You may be able to find a university that offers the academic elements of this associate degree online. However, you’ll need to have some clinical experience. This means the university might expect you to come to on-campus sessions once a month or do a summer school period where you earn the clinical experience you need for your license.
Online bachelor’s courses are usually aimed at someone who already has an associate degree, and allow that student to top up that degree by adding the bachelor’s level courses they’ve missed. These courses assume the student is already working as a dental hygienist, and therefore has the experience required.
How long do you have to go to school to become a dental hygienist?
The quickest route into dental hygiene is the associate’s degree, which takes two years for most students. There may be other options such as accelerated degree programs for someone who is already working in an allied health profession, is already a dental assistant, or who has a sound science background.
For those who are at the beginning of their careers, however, it’s safe to assume at least two years of study would be required before taking the licensing exam.
How do you get financial aid for your dental hygienist classes?
Studying to become a dental hygienist can be expensive, but there are many scholarships available that can offset a significant portion of the cost of studies. Organizations offering scholarships include:
- The National Health Service Corps
- Mae and Mary Legacy Foundation
- CDA Foundation
- Basil L. King Scholarships Foundation
- Colgate Scholarships
- ADEA Crest/Oral-B Scholarships
Some of the scholarships listed above are open to students from all over the United States. Others are aimed at students in a specific region or who are studying at a specific institution.
Demand for scholarships is very high, and students who are interested in applying for financial aid should apply early. Remember that it’s possible to apply for multiple scholarships and that many students who are experiencing financial hardship do use grants or bursaries from more than one institution to help them get through their courses.
In addition to scholarships, many students use loans to cover the cost of their courses. Since studying online is usually less expensive than studying at a traditional university, this means the student can get away with borrowing less, so they’ll start their career on a better financial footing.
How do you choose your classes to become a dental hygienist?
The dental hygiene profession is a demanding one with very high academic standards. This means students will need to demonstrate a good foundational understanding of the sciences and have a good GPA.
Western Kentucky University offers an online Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene program that is aimed at licensed dental hygienists who wish to upgrade to a bachelor’s degree. The prerequisites for this course give an overview of the focus of dental studies:
- BIOL 131
- BIOL 207/208
- ENG 100
- PSY/PSYS 100
Students are expected to have a grade C or higher in the prerequisites, and an overall GPA of 2.8 or better.
If you’re looking to enroll on an associate degree and are currently selecting AP-level courses, you’ll need to make sure you have a well-rounded education if you wish to focus on dental hygiene as a career. A focus on the sciences will stand you in good stead for your dental hygiene course. Consider enrolling in biology, health, chemistry, or mathematics courses.
The best dental hygiene programs are highly competitive and you may be able to increase your chances of acceptance if you take a year of college-level courses, or even two years before you enroll in a dental hygiene program at baccalaureate level.
Types of certificates and degrees for dental hygienists
While the vast majority of dental hygienists follow the academic route, it’s becoming increasingly common for students to follow accredited practical programs to learn about things like X-ray tech, anesthesia, or dental hygiene.
You’ll still need to complete a course of academic study and take the licensure exam, but you can do this while receiving vocational training. This type of study is a popular option among people who are less academically inclined since it lets them get a feel for what the job is like. Individuals who learn by doing might find they retain more information when they’re able to see a dentist or hygienist in action and understand why the things they’re learning are important.
What dental hygiene associate’s degrees are available?
There are hundreds of institutions across the United States offering entry-level or associate degree qualifications in dental hygiene. These courses often have titles such as:
- Associate of Applied Science
- Dental Hygiene Associates Degree
- Dental Hygiene Certificate
Entry-level courses are often taught at community colleges or trade schools, but some universities do offer such courses as well, with the option to top up a certificate or associate’s degree to a bachelor’s at a later date.
Students who complete a dental hygiene certificate or an associate’s degree can opt for a degree completion program at a university or round out their education by studying online.
After earning a bachelor’s degree, the next option is to study for a master’s degree. The Master of Science in Dental Hygiene and Related Disciplines is considered one of the crowning qualifications of the profession.
The American Dental Hygienists Association provides a list of educational institutions that offer entry-level qualifications accredited by CODA, allowing prospective students to verify the validity of any program they’re considering studying.
How do you get certified to be a dental hygienist?
After completing your associate’s degree, you’ll be required to take licensure examinations before you can work in a clinic. Individual states have their own licensing requirements, so it pays to research these so you can earn the license you need for the locale in which you’re planning to work.
Once you’ve passed the National Board Dental Hygiene written examination and completed any state or regional examinations, you’ll be a licensed dental hygienist and are permitted to use the initials “R.D.H.” after your name.
Top accredited schools with online dental hygiene programs
There are several schools offering online dental hygienist programs, including:
- University of New Mexico: Dental Hygiene Post-licensure Program
- West Los Angeles College: Dental Hygiene Bachelor Degree Completion Pathway
- Minnesota State University: Dental Hygiene Online Degree Completion Program
- Community College of Denver: Online Bachelor of Applied Science in Dental Hygiene
The course offered by the Community College Denver is one of the most interesting online courses because it’s a full-length online degree. It covers preclinical dental hygiene care, dental radiology, anatomy, and histology. Places on the course are competitive, and students are expected to attend three online classes per week.
The other courses listed above are focused on students who have already earned a certificate or associate’s degree and who are looking to upgrade their qualifications.
If you’re at the very start of your career and do not have any clinical experience you’ll need to look for an entry-level course. It’s not possible to earn a dental hygiene license without hands-on experience, so online degrees tend to focus on other areas of the dental profession.
For example, Ashworth College offers a Dental Office Assistant program that teaches dental terminology, cavity classification, preventative dentistry, and other topics to support someone in working as a dental assistant. This course could help a would-be hygienist get their first job in dentistry, giving them the chance to access training and work their way into a more clinical role.
Penn Foster College also offers a Dental Assistant Career Diploma with a similar focus. The academic elements of the course can be completed online, and the institution supports students in getting hands-on training with local clinics so they can earn the practical experience they need to get a job in dentistry.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks offers an entry-level course with a slightly different focus. Their course is a Medical and Dental Reception Certificate which equips students with the expertise required to work in clerical roles in a variety of health care settings. The specific content of this course may not directly transfer to dental hygienist work, with the exception of the medical terminology learned, but students will gain professional skills and exposure to working in health care.
What is the best online school for dental hygienists?
Any accredited program is going to equip students with the skills that a dental hygienist needs to do their job on a day-to-day basis. Demand for dental hygienists is high and someone who is licensed has shown they have the expertise required to work with patients and help people take care of their teeth.
There’s no one ‘best’ school for studying to become a hygienist. A lot of choosing a school comes down to personal preference.
So, when you’re trying to choose an online school, the most important thing to look at is whether or not the school is accredited. If the school is accredited, then you can study there with confidence.
Other things to consider include:
- Acceptance rate
- Completion rate
- Pass rate
- How the learning is delivered
Metrics such as acceptance rate and completion rate are often used to judge the quality of traditional degrees. It’s harder to judge online degrees in this way, however, because the learning environment is so different.
Many universities accept more students onto online courses than they would be able to with an on-campus degree. Even so, their acceptance rates might appear low because they have a high number of applicants and many of those applicants might be mature students without traditional qualifications.
Drop-out rates for online courses are very high because studying online requires so much more motivation and discipline than studying on-campus. Lots of students who are studying online are doing so while working a traditional job or supporting a family. These students face numerous challenges that on-campus full-time students do not face, and they’re expected to do so without the face-to-face support available on the campus.
So, don’t be put off by a low completion rate or acceptance rate. If you’re trying to choose between two schools that are within your budget and that offer a course you’d like to do, it is worth considering the one with the best pass rate, but remember that the job of actually completing the course falls to you.
To have a chance of completing the course you’ll need to be able to afford it, and you’ll need to put in the time and effort required to complete the learning. Many universities offer access to their online learning platforms so you can take a sample course and see what you think of the platform.
Take advantage of this. Look at the learning materials, try some sample tests, see what you think of the video content. If you find one platform far more enjoyable to use than another, weigh that heavily when making your decision because you’ll be spending endless hours over the next year or two working on that platform.
How competitive is dental hygienist school?
Dental hygienist school is very competitive. Places are limited, even for online courses, and acceptance rates of 55% are not unusual.
If you want to have the highest chance of getting accepted, start preparing for dental hygienist school early. Make sure your overall GPA is as high as possible, and take advantage of any chance you get to study the sciences. Enroll in some college-level biology, chemistry, psychology, and math courses.
Look at other related courses such as public health. Anything you can do to show a well-rounded education and an interest in health care will reflect well on your application.
Ask your college for references, and take part in lots of extracurricular activities. Volunteer work is something that is highly regarded, and even online colleges take into account.
Take some time to talk to current dental students, work on your position statement and ask for feedback from your current faculty.
What are the quickest online dental hygienist programs?
There are no shortcuts in the field of dental hygiene. If you want to complete a degree program you should expect it to take several years. It takes two years to earn an associate degree, and another one to two years to top that up to a bachelor’s degree.
Accelerated degree options are available for those who have already got a robust grounding in science, so if you were studying a different healthcare-related degree you may be able to switch tracks without having to repeat too much of your studies.
A completion program usually takes 18 months to two years, especially if you’re studying it part-time. That may sound like a long time, but it’s a big commitment and you’ll be expected to submit lots of coursework and study hard for the whole of that time.
What are the job prospects for a dental hygienist?
Becoming a dental assistant is easier than becoming a hygienist and still involves some practical work. So, if you’re eager to work in the field as quickly as possible you may want to consider completing a dental assistant certificate, then pursuing that role and using it as evidence of your passion for the field when you apply for entry to a hygienist course.
In the long term, becoming a hygienist is definitely worth it. Hygienists can command high salaries and are highly respected in their fields. In some states, hygienists are allowed to enter into independent practice. This brings with it additional challenges that someone who is a part of an established practice doesn’t have to worry about, but some individuals find it rewarding.
Independent practice means running your own business, so you’ve got the freedom of being your own boss. You’re responsible for your patients and can make your own business decisions.
Having that freedom also means having significant responsibilities. You may learn about running a business as a part of your bachelor’s degree or master’s degree, and will also have the chance to learn about professional ethics, law, public health, and other issues.
Some hygienists eventually move away from providing day-to-day care and look at studying cosmetic dentistry or new fields such as regenerative dentistry. These exciting fields give passionate dentists the chance to continue learning and explore new options for helping people feel more confident about their smiles.
As a licensed hygienist, you have the privilege of being able to pick and choose the type of care you provide, and what sort of environment you work in.