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Careers in Dental Hygiene — the Training and the Cost

The demand for dental hygienists, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is growing at a rate “much faster than average.” Between 2008 and 2018, the Bureau expects the field to add an additional 62,900 jobs, representing a growth rate of 16 percent. Based on 2008 labor statistics, the median annual income for dental hygienists is $66,570. The middle 50 percent earn between $55,000 and $78,000, and the top 10 percent earn more than $91,000 annually. Other factors add to the popularity of dental hygiene as a career. The top three employers of dental hygienists are private dental practices, private specialty dental practices, and community health clinics. Consequently, unlike many others in the medical field, dental hygienists work only during normal dental office hours. Most do not work any evenings or weekends, and some work part-time hours, perfect for single parents or caregivers of elderly parents. For these reasons, dental hygiene offers excellent opportunities either as an initial career choice or for those making a career change.

Dental Hygiene Training 

Those seeking training as dental hygienists may pursue either an associate’s degree (84 credit hours) or a bachelor’s degree (118 credit hours). The bachelor’s degree includes more clinical practice and more training in patient management; oral health education and preventive counseling; written communication; and science, particularly chemistry. The bachelor’s degree also lays the groundwork for pursuit of a master’s degree, and those interested in administrative positions, teaching, or research must have the higher degree.


Programs in dental hygiene must be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). According to the Dental Hygiene Education Fact Sheet, which is compiled by the American Dental Hygienist’s Association, 88 percent of the training programs are semester-based, and 34 percent include summer courses. A few programs (14 percent) offer part-time study opportunities while others (29 percent) offer some distance-learning (online) courses. While distance-learning courses can reduce educational costs, they are more likely to be offered as part of a degree-completion or master’s degree program and are less likely to be part of associate’s or bachelor’s degree programs.

Degree completion programs allow licensed dental hygienists with a certificate or an associate’s degree to complete the coursework needed to receive the bachelor’s degree that will open more career opportunities for them. The master’s degree provides training in research methods and applications, health education, leadership, legal and ethical issues, administration, finance and reimbursement, human resources and personnel supervision, diagnosis and treatment planning, administering and monitoring anesthesia, and dental restorative techniques.

Generally, admission to a dental hygiene program requires a high school diploma or a GED with a minimum of a “C” average; high school coursework in English, mathematics, chemistry, and biology; college entrance exam scores (the ACT or the SAT, depending on the requirements of the school); and as many as 40 credit hours of college-level courses in English, speech, chemistry, psychology, and sociology to prepare the student for dealing with anxious patients and patients from a variety of backgrounds. The majority of schools (70 percent) include the student’s overall college GPA, as well as the student’s GPA in college-level science courses, in their program admission criteria. In addition, some schools may require a personal interview, an essay, and/or a test of dexterity to determine whether or not the student is able to work well with both hands in a small space. Because of the rapid growth of interest in dental hygiene, 99 percent of all programs have placed a cap on the number of students admitted each quarter, semester, or year.

How Much Does Dental Hygienist School Cost?

Based on figures from 2012 through 2013, the American Dental Hygienist’s Association estimates that the average cost of tuition and fees for an associate’s degree is $22, 692, and the average cost of tuition and fees for a bachelor’s degree is $36,382. Based on figures from 2013, the average cost of tuition and fees for a master’s degree is $30,401. Students, however, do have options to reduce expenses and avoid heavy student loan debt. Earning an associate’s degree first allows students to begin working as dental hygienists after approximately two years. Licensed hygienists can then continue to work while completing a part-time or distance-learning degree completion program. Based on the information from the Dental Hygiene Education Fact Sheet, dental hygienists are far more likely to find a distance-learning degree completion program than to find a bachelor’s degree program with distance-learning courses, and completing the bachelor’s degree coursework through distance-learning greatly reduces the cost of earning the degree. Further, the working dental hygienist can budget to pay at least some tuition and fees out of his or her salary, reducing the need for student loans.