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Overview of an Associate Degree in Dental Hygiene

An associate degree in dental hygiene teaches students how to provide preventive dental hygiene care for teeth and gums to a patient as well as administer various dental treatments to reverse diseases and oral pathology and maintain oral health. Dental hygiene programs will provide current students with classes in dental hygiene education content and general education curriculum.

These dental hygiene programs usually last two years and are typically offered as an Associate of Science degree from a liberal arts college or a trade program, both of which may offer financial aid. These feature a blend of clinical lab experiences mixed with classroom dental hygiene education. Associate degree programs are most often offered by community and career colleges. If you’re planning on advancing your education later in your career, the credits you earn during your associate program could count toward earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree in oral health, public health policy, healthcare leadership, or another focus after you've become a dental hygienist.

Those who complete the two or three-year program may pursue a bachelor's and/or a master's degree to increase their job opportunities and earnings potential.


  • Can earn more pay than someone without a degree
  • You will have more employment options available
  • You can start working right away after graduating
  • After earning your associate you can pursue a bachelor’s degree
  • It doesn’t take long to complete
  • Associate degrees in dental hygiene are the most common degrees earned in this field


  • Takes longer to earn than a certification program
  • There are some certifications that you can’t get with just an associate degree
  • There are not many career choices with this degree
  • There are no specializations to focus on

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Certificate Vs. Associates

An associate degree in dental hygiene will consist of a variety of classes that not only focus on dental hygiene, but also involve general education courses such as; English, math, and computer basics. Because these general classes are included, it will take roughly two to three years to complete the course and earn your degree.

With a certificate program in dental hygiene, you will basically have the same classes as you would when studying for your associate, minus the general education courses. Without the general classes in the picture, with all your courses pertaining to dental hygiene only, you will graduate much faster. However, as usual, it's important to make sure your program has the appropriate accreditation. In this case, you should be looking for the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), supported by the American Dental Association, if you are taking any oral health program and looking to become a dental hygienist.

What Dental Hygiene Associates Degrees are Available?

A dental hygiene or dental health degree program is usually offered as an Associate of Science (AS), Associate of Applied Science (AAS), or Associate of Arts (AA) in Dental Hygiene. These programs feature a mix of clinical lab and classroom education experiences. Those who complete an AS or AA degree can also pursue a bachelor's and master's degrees to increase their potential earnings and have more job opportunities available to them. If you complete an AAS degree, it is less likely all your credits will transfer, as the applied science degree is meant to get you into the field, not prepare you for further education.

All three of these degrees can take 2 to 3 years to complete. While the requirements vary state by state and institution by institution, they generally call for completing an accredited educational program as well as passing the practical and written competency examinations. In addition, it is mandatory in every state that all dental hygienists be licensed.

Admission Requirements

Students interested in applying for the associate-level dental hygiene degree program may need the following:

  • A high school diploma or equivalent
  • A GPA score of at least a 2.0
  • Have passed high school grades in mathematics, English, chemistry, social studies, biology, and science
  • Up to 40 credit hours of college courses to be completed in physiology, human anatomy, chemistry, sociology, speech, microbiology, English, and psychology
  • Evidence of passing the ACCUPLACER Dental Hygiene Examination

All entry-level studies in dental hygiene must be CODA-accredited programs to be eligible to sit for licensing exams and then continue on to the clinical practice of dental hygiene.

How long does it take to earn a Dental Hygiene Associates?

Generally, an average associate degree program requires 84 credit hours and usually takes two years to complete, according to the Dental Hygiene Education Program Director Survey conducted in 2012 by the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA). However, there are some associate degrees that may only consist of around 60-semester credits, which takes approximately 18 months to two years to complete.

There are diploma programs that can be obtained much faster, as you won’t have to take general education classes, but keep in mind that going this route doesn’t have many other options available to you other than a dental hygienist, so you must be sure this is the position you want to hold.

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Potential Careers in Dental Hygiene with an Associates

  • Dental Hygienist
    Dental hygienists clean patient’s teeth and teach good oral hygiene while providing a wide range of dental preventive services. To become a dental hygienist, an associate degree should be acquired that includes courses in a clinical, laboratory, and classroom instruction in subjects like physiology, anatomy, microbiology, chemistry, radiography, pharmacology, periodontology, nutrition, behavioral and social sciences, and clinical dental hygiene. Some dental hygienists opt to further their career and pursue a DMD or DDS and become a dentist.
    Average Annual salary - $60,100
  • Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH)
    An RDH works primarily in dental offices, individually or with a team, and must possess strong interpersonal and communication skills to be able to work with patients and staff. They have a range of duties to perform such as cleaning the teeth and gums of patient’s, removing plaque and stains, polishing teeth, taking x-rays, teaching patients proper oral hygiene techniques, and more.

    The required education for an RDH is to at least hold an associate degree in dental hygiene from an accredited dental hygiene institution, get state licensure, and pass the National Board Dental Hygiene exam.
    Average Annual salary – $61,000

  • Dental Assistant
    A dental assistant's job may involve assisting the dentist with dental patients, performing clerical functions, and prepping patients for surgery or other procedures. They may also assist the dentist with such procedures by handing him tools he requests and more. This position requires strong communication skills and a good understanding of dental procedures. Typically, you would be working with a dentist in a dental office environment.
    Average Annual salary – $34,500
  • Dental Office Manager
    A dental office manager directs operations, leads office staff, orders necessary equipment, maintains the general upkeep of a dental office, and works with patients to schedule appointments and handle any issues that may arise due to dental care. They also work closely with dentists and therefore must be familiar with general dentistry and common dental techniques and practices. To hold this position, one must have exceptional organizational and communication skills, be detail-oriented, and a team leader.
    Average Annual salary – $51,300

Every time you advance to a higher degree, you will not only be able to earn more money but will also have more employment options available to you. Dental Hygienists don’t have to stay in the same job forever, there are many other options for them to advance. One way is to earn a dental hygiene bachelor’s degree which would qualify you for a job as a medical health services manager or a sales representative selling technical and scientific products. Holding a master’s or doctoral would make you eligible to become a dentist, work in research, or become a teacher in the field of dentistry.

Best Online Associate of Science in Dental Hygiene Programs

  • University of Pittsburg
    Pittsburgh, PA

    The University of Pittsburgh’s School of Dental Medicine’s Dental Hygiene program is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation and has classes available both online and on campus, full- or part-time. To obtain an associate degree, you will need 87-course credits, which can be completed in six terms or two years. Through a variety of clinical rotations in the community and on campus, valuable experience is provided in places that include, the Radiology Department, the Multidisciplinary Implant Center, the Center for Patients with Special Needs, the Department of Periodontics, and the Department of Pediatric Dentistry.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate in Dental Hygiene
  • New York University (NYU)
    New York City, NY

    Through the Office of Allied Health, New York University offers two dental hygiene programs: Associate in Applied Science and a Bachelor of Science. Most courses are offered online; however, the majority of the clinical and science courses are available on campus only. Class topics include Dental Materials, Oral and General Pathology, Pain Management, Nutrition and Health, and Pharmacology and can usually be completed in 2 years.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate of Applied Science in Dental Hygiene
  • Mesa Community College
    Mesa, AZ

    Mesa Community College offers a science-based, intensive, rigorous dental hygiene program with a balanced, personal development curriculum that takes an educational approach. Students are awarded an Associate’s in Applied Science (AAS) degree upon graduation and will be eligible to take the clinical and written exams necessary to obtain dental hygiene licensure.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associates of Applied Science in Dental Hygiene (AAS)
  • Phoenix College
    Phoenix, AZ

    The Dental Hygiene Program, offered by Phoenix College, was the very first dental hygiene program in Arizona with the first class graduating in 1970. The program’s curriculum was shared with Mesa and Rio Salado Community Colleges to create the Maricopa Community Colleges Dental Hygiene Degree Program. The program consists of four semesters with traditional breaks for holidays and summer.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate in Dental Hygiene
  • University of North Carolina (UNC)
    Chapel Hill, NC

    UNC’s School of Dentistry is currently recognized as the largest dental school in the US. It’s also the only dental facility in the state to provide baccalaureate degrees. Admission to the University does not guarantee that you will be admitted to the School of Dentistry. Before applying for the dental hygiene program, students must complete two years of general curriculum courses and then attend a personal interview. Classes may include Radiograph Interpretation, Special Care in Dentistry, Dental Ethics and Jurisprudence, Histology, and Nutrition.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate of Science in Dental Hygiene

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Traditional Schools Offering a AS in Dental Hygiene

  • Western Kentucky University
    Bowling Green, KY

    Western Kentucky University offers 104 certificate and degree programs, including an Associate of Science and a Bachelor of Science Degree Programs with a core-curriculum consisting of a two-year commitment that starts each fall, where only 28 students per year will be accepted to a class. Once accepted, students must maintain a "C" average or better in each of the Dental Hygiene courses as well as a 2.0 or more overall grade point average achieved upon completion of the program curriculum.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate of Science in Dental Hygiene (AS)
  • Florida State College
    Jacksonville, FL

    Florida State College’s Associate in Science in Dental Hygiene program prepares students for a promising career as a well-trained professional in dental hygiene.

    Dental hygienists are licensed, oral health professionals who provide clinical, educational, and therapeutic services to patients. As a member of a dental healthcare team working with licensed dentists, graduates promote optimal dental healthcare to the public.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate of Science in Dental Hygiene (AS)
  • Barton County Community College (BCCC)
    Great Bend, KS

    Barton County Community College’s online Associate of Science in Dentistry program prepares students for a career in the field of dentistry. The college provides student-focused, affordable, and accessible programs to benefit a diverse community. Courses include Physics II, College Chemistry II, Physiology and Anatomy, Statistics, Trigonometry, and Organic Chemistry I and II.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate of Science in Dentistry (AS)
  • College of Southern Nevada (CSN)
    Las Vegas, NV

    This rigorous program offers field, clinical, and didactic experiences to prepare graduates for a rewarding career as a dental hygiene professional. An Associate of Science in Dental Hygiene Degree is available as well as two different Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene Degrees. The Commission on Dental Accreditation of the American Dental Association accredits the Associate’s degrees where the bachelor’s degrees are accredited by the Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate of Science in Dental Hygiene (AS)
  • Pace University
    New York, NY

    Pace University’s Online Associate in General Arts and Sciences degree programs are built for busy individuals with little to no college credit who wish to pursue their first college degree. Depending on Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) and transfer credits, you can earn your associate degree in two years or less by attending online classes, part-time. To meet the needs of employers across the globe, students will incorporate critical coursework in communications, math, computing, English, and more while credits will be awarded for prior experience and learning.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate of General Arts and Sciences in Dental Hygiene (AA & AS)

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there negatives to being a dental hygienist?

The main thing that might be considered a negative is that you will not be paid as much as a dentist will be despite the fact that you will still need to earn a degree, pay for tuition, and pass exams just like a dentist. However, the degree you earn will take less time, cost less, and that and your licensing exam should be somewhat easier than what is required to become a fully licensed dentist. Some negatives that you can’t get around include the fact that you are unlikely to have much variety in your career. You’ll have limited tasks that are entrusted to you at this level, and you will perform those tasks over and over with various patients. If this doesn’t sound like something you want to do, you may want to reconsider becoming a dental hygienist. Additionally, license reciprocity is pretty rare at this level, meaning that you may be locked into the state where you receive your licensure until you are able to take another exam and gain licensure in another state where you would like to move. You may also have a less than optimal schedule, with the offices where you work choosing your schedule for you, and you may have to work part-time at several offices in order to find full-time employment. There are a number of reasons for this, but it is common across the country for dental hygienists to mostly work part-time and work out of multiple dentist offices, sometimes requiring a long commute several days of the week.

Can dental hygienists wear nail polish?

In many cases, it is suggested that dental hygienists avoid wearing nail polish because chipped polish can harbor bacteria.

How much does a dental hygienist make at the low end?

Are you worried about working in a lower income area and whether or not you will still be able to make a living as a dental hygienist? Well, there really isn’t anything to worry about. Dental hygienists are well paid, licensed professionals employed in the healthcare sector. Even the lowest 10% of dental hygienists still make around $56,000 per year. So, even if you live in a low-competition area, or somewhere where the median income isn’t very impressive, you should still be able to make a good living with this degree and license.

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