Dental hygiene is a vital part of a healthy life, but becoming a dentist is not the only way that you can help people keep their smiles in good shape. Attending dental assistant school online or on campus can train you to help dental patients in ways other than directly working on their teeth.
How long is dental assistant school? How much do dental assistants make? We'll answer these questions and more on this page, as well as going into some basic info about the duties you'll be expected to perform on the job. Dental assistant education requirements are typically less strict than those for an operating dentist, but the position comes with its own set of challenges and rewards. Read on to find out more.
What do dental assistants do?
Different dental offices may have different sets of everyday tasks for the dental assistants who work there, but there are a few responsibilities that most dental assisting jobs have in common:
- Ensuring that patients are settled into the dental chair
- Sterilizing instruments and preparing the work area for any necessary procedures
- Capturing and processing x-ray images
- Scheduling appointments and managing patient records
- Drying patients' mouths and handing dentists the appropriate instruments
- Giving patients information about proper oral hygiene
Dental Assistant Specializations
Some dental assistant programs offer specialized training designed to prepare students for the challenges of working in a specific type of dentist's office. Others may offer training rotations that allow you to gain experience in several specialty areas over the course of your schooling. Here are a few of the dental specialties that you might study:
- Pediatric dentistry
- Oral and maxillofacial surgery
Keep in mind that your state or employer may require that you complete additional training or certification before you can officially work as a specialized dental assistant. Contact your state's Board of Dental Examiners for more information.
How to Become a Dental Assistant
Dental assistant education requirements can vary from state to state and employer to employer, ranging from no formal education at all to an accredited one- or two-year study plan. Here's a short series of steps that can lead to a dental assistant career:
- Obtain your high school diploma or equivalent. Even if there are no formal dental assistant education requirements in your state, employers are still likely to prefer candidates with a high school education. Certain specific classes -- anatomy, biology and chemistry, to name a few -- can help you prepare for the work and study ahead.
- Enroll in a vocational school or community college program. Formal education can increase your chances of landing a good job. Campus-based and online dental assistant schools offer educational programs that can take anywhere from four months to two years to complete. We'll go into the available types of program a little further down the page.
- Consider certification. The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) offers a range of state and national certification exams that can either clear you to begin working in the field or prepare you to perform certain specialized duties.
Curriculum requirements may not be identical from one dental assisting school to another, but there are a few subjects of study that many programs across the country have in common:
- Dental anatomy
- Clinical science
- Dental materials
- Chairside assisting
- Oral radiology
- Dental practice management
- OSHA regulations
- Infection control
How long is dental assistant school?
It depends on where you decide to attend. Campus-based and online dental assistant programs are primarily found at community colleges and vocational, trade and technical schools. Depending on the amount of training you're looking for, you might choose any one of these three common program types:
- Undergraduate certificates typically require the fewest credit hours to complete, but they also cover the essentials of the profession in the lowest amount of detail. Certificates can come in handy if you know you'll be able to get additional training on the job.
- Diplomas can often be earned in around a year of full-time study, although different schools structure their programs differently. Diploma students usually learn more of the finer points of dental assisting than certificate students, but the lack of general education courses may make it difficult to transfer your credits into future college programs.
- Associate degrees take an average of two years of full-time study to complete and provide the most in-depth training of the three types of program. The standard associate degree curriculum also includes courses in math, science, English and other subjects that tend to transfer more easily into bachelor's programs and beyond.
The associate degree is generally considered to be the highest level of education available for dental assistants. If you decide to move into a dental hygienist's role after some time on the job, a bachelor's degree may be required.
Hands-on training dental assistant schools
Gaining real-world experience before graduation can give you an added boost of confidence when it comes time to hit the job market. Some dental assistant programs offer job experience sections called externships, during which students travel to working dental offices and put their knowledge and skills to work in a professional setting.
Not every dental assistant training program features an externship section, so make sure to check with an advisor before enrolling if you're hoping to graduate with some hands-on experience.
Online dental assistant schools
A few career schools across the U.S. offer online dental assistant programs, which can be a great help to prospective students who are too busy to attend a traditional, campus-based program. Lab work is difficult to replicate in the digital environment, so most online programs lead to certificates, but the absence of lab sections can also help keep your dental assistant school costs to a minimum.
It must be said, though, that attending dental assistant school online is by no means an easy way to get your certificate. If you're comfortable keeping yourself motivated, communicating via email and message boards and completing work with limited supervision, then online programs might be right for you.
Dental assistant certifications
Whether your state requires it or not, earning certification can help you stand out from the pack and boost your chances of landing a top dental assisting position. Here's a list of some of the certifications offered through DANB:
- National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA)
- Certified Dental Assistant (CDA)
- Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA)
- Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)
- Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA)
The path to earning any of these national credentials consists of passing a set of component exams, which can also be taken separately to demonstrate your skill in a particular area. Here are a few of the subjects covered in component exams:
- Infection control
- Anatomy, morphology and physiology
- Topical anesthetic
- Coronal polishing
Certain states may also require dental assistants to pass particular component exams before they can perform certain duties on the job. For specific information on the certification requirements where you live, check with your state's Board of Dental Examiners.
Career advancement options for dental assistants
Dental assistants with plenty of job experience, several certifications or more education than others may be in shape to find employment at the most prestigious and highest-paying dental clinics. Doing high-quality work and maintaining a good relationship with your employers can also set you up to land more desirable positions.
If you want to move up the ladder in the dental profession, however, it's typically necessary to return to school and train for a more technical career. You can qualify for dental hygienist careers with an associate or bachelor's degree, and completing the right prerequisites at a community or junior college can put you on the path to dental school and a career as a full-fledged dentist.
Top Dental Assisting Programs
Looking for the top dental assisting schools in the nation? We took data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard and analyzed it for factors such as price, program availability and student success outcomes. Based on that, we found the following are the best vocational schools for dental assisting.
We aren't the only ones to recognize the quality education offered at Atlanta Technical College. The school received the 2012 Perdue Award for Technical College of the Year from the Technical College System in Georgia, and its graduates have won seven state GOAL (Georgia Occupational Award of Leadership) awards and four state PRIDE (Performance Recognition Indicating Demonstrated Excellence) awards.
Dental assisting programs at ATC: There are two dental assisting programs, and both are accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. The dental assisting diploma can be completed in six semesters, and diploma graduates are eligible to sit for a national certification exam. There is also a basic dental assisting certificate that requires only two semesters of study.
Students at Elgin Community College get an education that is both affordable and personal. The average class size is 15 students, and full-time tuition runs around $4,000 for the year. The school was named one of the top 150 schools for the 2019 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, awarded by the non-profit Aspen Institute.
Dental assisting programs at ECC: ECC offers three accredited dental assisting certificates. The programs for dental office aide and preclinical dental assisting are basic certificates and can be completed in three semesters each. There is also a vocational certificate in clinical dental assisting that builds upon the two basic certificates. Those earning a vocational certificate are eligible to become Certified Dental Assistants.
Integrity, professionalism, student success and academic excellence are all core values at West Georgia Technical College. The school offers degree and diploma programs at nine different locations across seven Georgia counties. It also provides skilled training to local businesses and industries.
Dental assisting programs at WGTC: The dental assisting programs at WGTC are offered at the school's Douglas Campus in Douglasville and the CEC Instructional Site in Newnan. Students can choose from either a basic or advanced dental assisting certificate. Both require a minimum of 14 credit hours, and graduates may be able to sit for the National Entry Level Dental Assistant exam.
Established in 1990, Ozarks Technical Community College was built on core values such as opportunity, accessibility, diversity and integrity. Its dental assisting program is the only one in Southwest Missouri to be accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation.
Dental assisting programs at OTC: Students can choose from either a traditional track or a hybrid track for the OTC dental assisting program. Classes for the traditional track are conducted entirely on-campus or in a clinical setting while the hybrid option combines online classes with hands-on, clinical experience. With either option, graduates should be eligible to receive national certification as well as expanded function permits through the Missouri Dental Board.
Carrington College focuses exclusively on helping students prepare for careers in health care. The school offers personalized instruction with plenty of opportunity for hands-on training. It has locations in eight states as well as some online programs. Carrington offers its students tutoring, career services and a promise not to change tuition rates during the length of a program.
Dental assisting programs at Carrington: You can earn either a one-year certificate or a two-year associate degree in dental assisting from Carrington College. The programs cover administrative, laboratory and clinical duties. To gain hands-on experience, students complete an externship prior to graduation.
Ivy Tech Community College is the only community college for the state of Indiana. It operates in more than 40 locations statewide and offers more than 1,000 online classes. Ivy Tech is the largest postsecondary institution in the state, but it still manages to keep its tuition affordable and classes small. Indiana residents can earn some certificates, including those in dental assisting, for free through the state's Workforce Ready Grant program.
Dental assisting programs at Ivy Tech: Ivy Tech offers accredited dental assisting programs at five of its campus locations. There, students learn in state-of-the-art facilities and can earn either a technical certificate or an associate degree. The technical certificate takes four semesters to complete while the degree requires five semesters.
Founded in 1965, Lake Area Technical Institute offers degree options both on its Watertown campus and online. The school is noted for being military-friendly and was a 2017 winner of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. It also has an impressive placement rate with 99% of its graduates reportedly employed or continuing their education.
Dental assisting programs at LATI: You have two options at LATI: an 11-month diploma or a 20-month Associate of Applied Science degree. The institute has modern facilities in which students learn before heading out for off-campus clinical experiences in Watertown or its surrounding communities. There is also a dental assisting - certified e-degree. This option is designed for part-time students and lets them take some classes online.
Affordable tuition and small class sizes are part of what makes Bates Technical College one of the best vocational schools for dental assisting. The school offers classes at three campus locations and enrolls approximately 8,000 students each year. Many of these are adult learners, and the median age of students is 32.
Dental assisting programs at Bates: Dental assisting programs are offered at the college's downtown campus. The 11-month programs runs for three trimesters and can result in either a certificate of competency or an Associate of Applied Science in dental assisting. The program is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, and students prepare to take the Dental Assisting National Board exam as part of their coursework.
Community Care College is an institution that specializes in health care training. The school was founded in 1995 by Teresa Knox who worked as a dental assistant for several years before deciding she wanted to help others prepare to enter the field. Today, Community Care College offers nearly a dozen diploma programs that can be completed in less than a year.
Dental assisting programs at Community Care College: You can earn a dental assisting diploma at Community Care College in as few as eight months. Class times are available during weekdays and in the evenings. Graduates leave Community Care College with a Dental Assistant Permit from the Oklahoma Board of Dentistry as well as credentials in CPR and radiation safety and protection.
With locations in three states, Altierus Career College is focused on providing career training to busy adults. The Norcross campus has recently undergone a facelift and features renovated labs and new technology. Many of its programs, including dental assisting, only require students to be on campus three times per week.
Dental assisting programs at Altierus: It only takes nine months to earn a dental assisting diploma at Altierus Career College. Students learn hands-on skills using modern equipment. The program blends online coursework with on-campus learning to help students achieve a healthy school/life balance.
Skills and Abilities for Dental Assistants
Certain skills and abilities can be especially useful to dental assistants. The Occupational Information Network (O*NET) lists around 25 of these valuable traits -- here's a list of a few of the top entries and a brief explanation of why they're important:
- Active listening ensures that you can be attentive to the needs of patients and instructions from your dentist
- Service orientation, or the desire to find ways to help people, can bring a human touch to your work
- Social perceptiveness can help you be aware of the meaning of a patient's actions and reactions and respond accordingly
- Arm-hand steadiness is essential when assisting your dentist with cavity surgeries and other delicate procedures
- Speech clarity helps a great deal when guiding patients through the treatment process and providing oral health tips
Dental Assistant Salary and Career Outlook
It's clear by now that they perform essential support functions in a dentist's office, but how much do dental assistants make? The average pay in the state where you work and your levels of education and experience may each have an influence on your individual dental assistant salary, but the national figures can give you some idea of what to expect once you graduate and hit the career market. Here's some salary and job outlook data for dental assistants, compiled by the BLS:
|Career||Total Employment||Annual Mean Wage||Projected Job Growth Rate|
|Dental Laboratory Technicians||34,480||$43,180||14.5%|
|Dentists, All Other Specialists||4,490||$178,800||12%|
Professional Organizations for Dental Assistants
Membership in a professional organization can provide a wealth of career resources for dental assistants, whether they're industry veterans or just starting out on the job. Check out these brief explanations of a few such organizations at the national and state levels:
- The American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA) offers free online continuing education, access to job search site DentReps, opportunities for professional fellowship and a subscription to The Dental Assistant.
- The California Dental Assistants Association (CDAA) serves as a regional branch of the ADAA, providing state-focused legislative advocacy and access to the state's local dentist assistant societies.
- Overseas professionals can join the Dental Assistants Professional Association (DAPA), a non-profit organization in Australia that dedicates itself to advancing the careers and recognition of dental assistants.
Using the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard, we generated a list of schools that met the following criteria:
- Institution type is less than 2 years, greater than 2 & less than 4 years
- Accredited by at least 1 agency (institutional accreditation)
- The school falls under one of the following classifications: (Carnegie Classification 2015: Undergraduate Instructional Program)
- Associate's Colleges: Mixed Transfer/Vocational & Technical
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with 30-49% of awards (degrees and certificates) in career & technical programs.
- Associate's Colleges: Mixed Transfer/Vocational & Technical
Associate's Colleges: High Vocational & Technical
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with more than 50% of awards (degrees and certificates) in career & technical programs.
Special Focus: Two-Year Institution
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with typically more than 75% of awards in a single career & technical program
- The school must offer at least 1 program for the subject in question
We ranked the resulting colleges on the following variables:
- Cost of attendance, based on the average net price for students receiving scholarship and grant aid, and the total cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- No. of Associate degree and undergraduate Certificate programs offered for the subject (relevant CIP codes), National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- No. of Associate degree and undergraduate Certificates conferred for the subject (relevant CIP codes), National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- Percent of undergraduate students enrolled in any distance education classes, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Full-time student retention rate & part-time retention rate (if full-time retention rate is not available, then use part-time retention rate), National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2017
- The graduation rate in 150% time, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Percent of students working and not enrolled 6 years after entry, College Scorecard, 2014-15
- Flexibility and student services, based on whether the school offers the following services, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Academic and career counseling
- Job placement services for graduates
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- School pages, accessed December 30-31, 2018: Dental Assistant: Areas of Specialization, College of Southern Idaho, http://hshs.csi.edu/dental_assistant/area_specialization.asp; Specialties you can enter as a dental assistant, Carrington College, https://carrington.edu/blog/dental/specialties-you-can-enter-as-a-dental-assistant/; Dental Assistant Certificate Training Program, Pima Medical Institute, https://pmi.edu/programs/certificate/dental-assistant; Dental Assistant Option 1, Rochester Community and Technical College, https://www.rctc.edu/program/da/admission/option1/; Program: Dental Assistant Diploma, Des Moines Area Community College, https://catalog.dmacc.edu/preview_program.php?catoid=12&poid=1595; Dental Assistant Degree Program, ECPI University, https://www.ecpi.edu/programs/dental-assistant-associate-degree; Dental Assistant Diploma, Vista College, https://start.vistacollege.edu/dental-assistant-associate-degree/; Dental Hygiene B.S>, University of Bridgeport, http://bridgeport.edu/academics/schools-colleges/fones-school-dental-hygiene/dental-hygiene-bs; Online Dental Assistant Courses & Program Curriculum, Penn Foster Career School, https://www.pennfoster.edu/programs-and-degrees/medical-and-health-careers/dental-assistant-career-diploma/program-details; Online Dental Assistant School, U.S. Career Institute, https://www.uscareerinstitute.edu/certificates/health-care-programs/dental-assistant;
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- Dental School Admissions, American Dental Association, accessed December 30-31, 2018, https://www.ada.org/en/education-careers/careers-in-dentistry/be-a-dentist/applying-for-dental-school
- Dental Assistants, Occupational Outlook Handbook, accessed December 31, 2018, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/31-9091.00
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- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2017-18, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements): 2014-15, College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
- Mission, Atlanta Technical College, Accessed June 2019, https://www.atlantatech.edu/about-atc/history-mission-values/
- Elgin Community College, Accessed May 2019, https://elgin.edu/
- Discover WGTC, West Georgia Technical College, Accessed June 2019, https://www.westgatech.edu/discover-wgtc/
- About OTC, Ozarks Technical Community College, Accessed June 2019, https://about.otc.edu/about-otc/
- Who is Carrington College? Carrington College, Accessed June 2019, https://carrington.edu/carrington-college/
- About Ivy Tech Community College, Ivy Tech Community College, Accessed June 2019, https://www.ivytech.edu/about/index.html
- It's Your World!, Lake Area Technical Institute, Accessed June 2019, https://www.lakeareatech.edu/about-us/
- Facts & Figures, Bates Technical College, Accessed June 2019, https://batestech.edu/about-bates/facts-figures/
- History, Community Care College, Accessed June 2019, https://communitycarecollege.edu/about/history/
- Norcross Campus, Altierus Career College, Accessed June 2019, https://www.altierus.edu/campus/norcross