The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) maintains a regularly updated list of accredited dental hygienist education programs in the U.S. and Canada. Some programs provide associate degrees. If the program’s accreditation standing remains valid and the school supports online delivery formats, then it is possible to get an associate degree in dental hygiene online.
Some states require dental hygienists to hold academic credentials from CODA accredited programs to obtain and maintain licensure. Even if this does not apply in the jurisdiction where you plan to work, attending a recognized institution maximizes your career options. Studying at a school endorsed by CODA is highly recommended in all circumstances.
If you cannot locate a suitable CODA-credentialed online associate degree in dental hygiene, consider enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program instead. Online bachelor’s degrees offer considerable appeal, especially for nontraditional learners and students with families, making them a flexible and practical alternative to traditional campus attendance.
What is a dental hygienist?
Dental hygienists usually work in dental offices, scaling patients’ teeth, which is a deep cleaning of the teeth and gums. They also examine patients for signs and symptoms of oral diseases and degenerative conditions. Hygienists play a critical role in patient education, instructing clients on how to better care for their teeth and gums to prevent future problems.
Some people confuse dental hygienists with dental assistants, mistakenly assuming the job titles are interchangeable. Dental assistants perform a different set of duties. They prepare patients to undergo treatments, sterilize the necessary tools and equipment, and assist dentists as they perform procedures. They do not perform any dental procedures themselves.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment growth of 6% for dental hygienists during the 2019-2029 period. As of May 2020, dental hygienists posted median annual incomes of more than $77,000 per year.
How do I become a dental hygienist?
Dental hygienists enter professional practice by earning state licensure. Exact requirements vary by state, but they generally include an associate degree in dental hygiene. Some hygienists hold bachelor’s degrees and there are schools that also offer master’s programs, but these are relatively rare and have little, if any, impact on a candidate’s licensure eligibility.
Typical state-level licensure requirements include three main steps:
- Graduating from a CODA-accredited program that meets the minimum requirements set by your state’s licensing board
- Passing the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination
- Passing any additional regional- or state-level certifications or board examinations that may apply
What will I learn online in dental hygiene school?
Dental hygiene programs begin with important instruction on dental anatomy and physiology. They also cover fundamentals of oral histology, biochemistry, microbiology, and the major materials, processes, and techniques hygienists use when providing services to patients. Later program stages expand and build on these topics in more detail while delving into more advanced topics such as pain management, pharmacology, cariology, and periodontology.
Online associate degrees in dental hygiene typically take the equivalent of three academic years to complete, though some offer graduation timelines of about two years. Bachelor’s programs usually run for four full academic years.
CODA-accredited programs normally include hands-on learning, such as lab components and clinical practice experience. Programs with online delivery formats still require students to complete these requirements in person. If you live far from the school’s physical campus, contact a program advisor to see how they prefer to manage the in-person elements of the program.
What examinations are required to become a dental hygienist?
Aspiring dental hygienists must pass two standardized examinations: the Admission Test for Dental Hygiene (ATDH) and the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE). The American Dental Association (ADA), the largest and most authoritative dentistry professional organization in the United States, administers both exams.
Admission Test for Dental Hygiene (ATDH)
The ADA conceived this test as an admission exam that aspiring dental hygiene students must pass before qualifying for entry to a CODA-approved dental hygiene program. It will launch in the second half of 2021.
The ATDH will screen candidates for the skills and base knowledge needed to succeed in accredited dental hygiene programs. It will apply to applicants looking to enroll in dental hygiene programs at U.S. institutions.
Questions test the prospective student’s critical thinking skills across six key subject areas: biology, chemistry, language use, perceptual aptitude, quantitative reasoning, and reading comprehension. The exam uses a multiple-choice format and includes 240 questions. Test takers will have four hours and 50 minutes to complete the examination.
Fees for 2021 will include a $125 administration fee, a $25 additional score report fee, and an optional score audit fee of $65. Current plans call for an administration window from September 1-October 31, 2021, followed by a retake window from December 15, 2021-January 15, 2022. Projections anticipate a second administration window spanning March 30-May 31, 2022.
National Board Dental Hygiene Examination (NBDHE)
The NBDHE tests whether a dental hygiene program graduate has developed the knowledge and skills necessary. Passing this examination grants licensure to practice dental hygiene professionally. In 2020, the ADA adopted a short-form alternative to the established NBDHE to address safety concerns arising from the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The shortened version of the exam contains 155 questions, broken down into discipline-based components (85 questions) and case-based components (70 questions). Discipline-based components assess the test-taker’s knowledge of dental hygiene science, clinical practices, and community health research literacy. The case-based questions draw on actual patient studies to test situational skills and awareness.
The short-form NBDHE takes three hours and 35 minutes to complete. The ADA plans to eventually return to the standard-length exam, but this will not occur until the autumn of 2021 at the earliest.
Current fees include a $490 administration fee, plus an additional score report fee of $45. The same fee schedules apply to both the short-form and standard versions of the exam, and will therefore remain the same when the ADA reverts back to the full-length format.