A dental hygienist with tools

Dental Hygienist Education Requirements: What Degree Do You Need to Become a Dental Hygienist?

When it comes to healthcare, there are certain medical professionals that everyone should visit at least once a year. For a yearly physical, patients should see their general practitioner. To make sure they’re skin cancer-free, adults should visit a dermatologist. And, of course, children and adults alike should make time to see their dentist every six months, to have their teeth cleaned and gums examined. Dentists serve a vital role in the health and well-being of their patients. However, it’s not dentists who spend the most time with dental patients. Instead, it’s dental hygienists. Dental hygienists are responsible for conducting preliminary oral exams, taking dental x-rays, applying fluorides and sealants, and cleaning patients’ teeth to remove stains, plaque, and tartar. They also educate patients on how to best take care of their oral health. Because this job is so important, it’s no wonder that the field is projected to grow by 6% between 2019 and 2029, with annual average salaries ranging between $65,000 and $77,330 for dental hygienists.

There are a few different ways to approach a career in dental hygiene. Depending on how quickly you’d like to enter the field, and whether you’re currently a dental hygienist looking to advance your career, there are a variety of dental hygienist education requirements and degree programs to consider.

General Dental Hygienist Requirements

In general, dental hygienists need at least an associate degree in Dental Hygiene to launch their career. Some employers prefer to hire dental hygienists with a bachelor’s degree, or may require a master’s degree for advanced positions. No matter which degree path you choose, the program must be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. This is often required to pursue licensure.

As noted by the American Dental Association, an associate degree, at minimum, makes aspiring hygienists eligible to take their board licensing exams and, upon passing, become a Registered Dental Hygienist (R.D.H.). All states require dental hygienists to be licensed, though specific license requirements vary by state.

Degree Requirements for Dental Hygienists, Explained

Associate Degree in Dental Hygiene
An associate degree in Dental Hygiene prepares students to master the fundamentals of the dental hygiene process of care, including assessment, dental hygiene diagnosis, evaluation, and documentation. Students learn how to effectively communicate with patients and how to function as an integral part of a dental healthcare team. Students in this program are typically required to complete general education courses in addition to their program-specific courses. Additionally, an associate in Dental Hygiene requires students to complete clinical experiences that prepare them to provide direct patient care.

Course Examples

  • Oral Anatomy
  • Radiology
  • Introduction to Periodontology
  • Nutritional Biochemistry

Learning Outcomes

As noted above, receiving an associate degree in Dental Hygiene allows graduates to sit for licensure examinations (national and state, or regional) and become licensed to work in a dental office. Students may later decide to pursue additional training in business administration, public health, or dentistry in order to broaden their career opportunities. However, earning this degree is sufficient to begin a career as a dental hygienist (after passing licensure examinations).

Bachelor’s Degree in Dental Hygiene
Though basic dental hygienist education requirements end at an associate degree, students may decide that a four-year bachelor’s degree in Dental Hygiene is more in line with their career goals. This program requires students to complete general education courses as well as program specific courses such as oral anatomy and periodontology. However, this course of study also allows students to minor in a subject area that corresponds with their interests. For example, these minors can include education, marketing, psychology, or human services, though there are a plethora of other options as well. By combining the standard, professional dental hygiene curriculum with a more extensive liberal arts education, students expand their career opportunities, gain additional professional skills, and become more well-rounded care givers.

Course Examples

  • General and Oral Histo-Pathology
  • Dental Materials
  • Advanced Clinical Concepts
  • Introduction to Counseling OR

Learning Outcomes

Students who earn their bachelor’s degree in Dental Hygiene are prepared to sit for national and state, or regional licensing examinations. A licensed dental hygienist who holds a bachelor’s degree can work in a clinical setting as a care provider. They are also qualified to work in research, education, or in a clinical practice in public or school health programs. A bachelor’s degree provides graduates with a larger variety of employment opportunities.

Master’s Degree in Dental Hygiene
Though it’s rare for dental hygienists to pursue a graduate degree, a master’s degree in Dental Hygiene is the perfect choice for licensed hygienists who want to advance into leadership positions in education and public health. This two-year program provides students with field site opportunities in the areas of public health, education, administration, research, and more. Students will also be required to student teach and complete a master’s capstone project that is typically research-based.

Course Examples

  • Global Healthcare
  • Dental Hygiene Student Teaching
  • Public Health
  • Statistical Reasoning

Learning Outcomes

Graduates of the master’s degree in Dental Hygiene program are prepared for a career in research and education. While they’ll be able to continue working in clinical settings as dental hygienists, they’ll also qualify for advanced positions in public health, administration, clinical management, and dental education.

If you find yourself wondering, “What degree do you need to be a dental hygienist?”, it’s important to first consider your career goals. If your passion is patient care and you’re eager to begin your career quickly, an associate degree may be the right choice. However, if you’re interested in providing education to future hygienists or conducting research, you may want to consider pursuing a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree in Dental Hygiene. The choice is yours. All degree options are available at University of Bridgeport, home to the world’s first Dental Hygiene School. Visit us online today to learn more.