Dental Assistant to Dental Hygienist Credit-by-Exam Programs: The Fastest and Most Affordable Way to Become a Dental Hygienist

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If you currently work as a dental assistant, there’s no way you haven’t already daydreamed about taking the next step to become a fully licensed hygienist.

Fact is, if you’ve been working in a dental office long enough you’ve probably already got a firm grasp on the basic skills and knowledge, but you’re still going to need the right credentials: an associate’s degree, passing scores on the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, and a state issued dental hygienist license.

Now, there’s a new take on an old way to earn the associate’s degree you need, and it won’t require sitting for hours through boring lectures at your neighborhood community college and getting into debt to make it happen.

In fact, it’s all about avoiding these kinds of time-consuming and expensive courses while earning college credits in the process.

Credit-by-exam test prep programs make earning an associate’s in dental hygiene a lot easier than you might think. They can completely cut general and prerequisite courses out of the equation so you can focus solely on the important dental hygiene coursework that you really need.

With the right kind of planning, you can use this clever hack to fast-track your way to a higher-paying job as a dental hygienist in a fraction of the time and for far less money.

Why Go From Being A Dental Assistant To Becoming a Dental Hygienist?

In terms of income and career stability, it’s a no-brainer. Most assistants would be lucky to get full-time hours and a regular salary they can count on, while that kind of security and stable pay is pretty much automatic for hygienists.

The salaries for hygienists blow assistant pay out of the water too: at $35.97 per hour, or nearly $75,000 per year, you can make nearly double the $18.59 hourly the typical assistant pulls down. And that’s the national median. In certain markets the pay bump is even more dramatic:

Hygienists … Assistants

California:  $100,830/yr … $41,030/yr
Texas:  $75,300/yr… $36,820/yr
New York:  $76,280/yr … $39,130/yr
Florida:  $64,070/yr… $39,590/yr

Median salaries shown for states with some of the highest employment numbers for hygienists and assistants; US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018.

Once you have a few years under your belt as an assistant, getting to this level really comes down to clearing a few hurdles. You’ve probably already knocked out state requirements for practical experience, and in the process gained the same kind of practical knowledge and skills the hygienists in the office have… why should you still be making half as much?

Lowering the Educational Hurdle Between You and Your Dental Hygienist License

Of course, there’s one glaring difference between you and those hygienists: they hold a state license to practice as a healthcare professional. In nearly every state, holding a degree from an accredited dental hygiene program is required for licensure, and in most cases, that means earning an associate’s at minimum.

An associate’s program can take two years and, according to the American Dental Education Association, cost an average of $22,692. Although an increasing number of degrees are available with online courses to make things more convenient, the expense is often increased even further by the fact that school time will be cutting into your work hours… if you can even continue working at all, because, don’t forget, you’re going to have homework too.

Earning an associate’s the old fashioned way can add up to a lot of loans to pay off and losing a couple years of earning potential at the same time.

Testing-Out Of Courses To Earn Credits Toward a Degree In Dental Hygiene

Testing out of classes isn’t a concept that’s entirely new. Many colleges have traditionally offered the option on a case by case basis. If you can demonstrate the knowledge you would otherwise be taught in class, the thinking goes, you should be awarded the credits without having to sit through hours of re-learning what you already know. It’s just as efficient for the college as it is for you, the student.

Over time, testing organizations have developed programs like the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) or the DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST) that standardized the process. Schools now widely recognize the exams these organizations offer.

By offering tests that are widely accepted (CLEP scores are accepted by 2,900 colleges and universities) and conducted nationwide (there are more than 2,000 CLEP test centers in the U.S.), it’s no longer necessary to hunt down schools that accept the option, and no need to deal with non-standard tests that some schools offer.

CLEP alone has 34 different examinations that you can take to earn credits toward a degree with absolutely zero classroom course hours or tuition fees. These exams primarily cover general studies topics, the exact kinds of classes you can feel good about skipping since they don’t provide any of the clinical skills training you actually need.

And with faculty at participating colleges validating the tests, you can be assured that you have the same command of all the information you would have gotten sitting in class anyway.

In the past, many people have used this as a way to simply fast-forward through subjects they already know well, but now people are using it to hack the whole process; earning all the credits required to graduate with very little time in the classroom.

Make no mistake, testing-out takes planning and commitment too. There is a reason not everyone does it, and the fact is, most people can’t just show up and pass a test on the Principles of Statistics by just reading up on it on their own. Unless you have the discipline of a fighter in training, self-study probably isn’t an option.

That’s where test-prep services come into play.

Test Preparation Services Take You Step-By-Step Through the Credit-by-Exam Process

The difficulty of putting it all together has led to a new and better way to earn college credits through the credit-by-exam process.

Third-party organizations like Achieve now bundle fast-track test-prep courses, and even help you find accredited schools that will accept those test-based credits.

Achieve uses a seven-step process to help you earn your degree through exam-based credits. Achieve will:

  1. Identify the best accredited college for your degree– You need a local school that is flexible about accepting exam-based credits, and that also offers the associate’s degree in dental hygiene that you need for licensure.
  2. Identify courses that the school will allow you to test out of – Within the mandated program curriculum, Achieve will identify courses that can be satisfied with the exams that are available.
  3. Offer accelerated online virtual courses that prepare you for the examYou’ll go through an abbreviated, accelerated online test preparation course that teaches directly to the test with minimal materials required. Classes are offered synchronously with day, night, and weekend options, lasting from 4-10 weeks, and meeting once per week for three or four hours.
  4. Offer extra tutoring when required– In cases where you may need it, additional tutoring and drills can help prepare you for particularly difficult subjects. You can expect an individualized study plan and one-on-one tutoring if you happen to fail an exam for any reason.
  5. Provide test study materials– You’ll get condensed, focused, information-rich study materials and booklets to help you cram.
  6. Coordinate testing– Identifying the nearest test centers available for the tests you need to take and assisting you in making the arrangements to sit for those exams.
  7. Help ensure that you receive the credits you have earned by testing or through previous courses– Achieve works with you to ensure the school receives your CLEP or other exam scores and that you receive the credits you are due. It will also help you find transferable credits from any previous courses you may have taken at the college level and assist you in having those applied to your associate’s degree.

In the end, you will end up taking a blended approach to earning your degree, testing out of most prerequisite and general courses using common tests, and only taking specialized dental hygiene classes that do not have an exam-based alternative.

The Credit-By-Exam Approach Fast-Tracks Your Dental Hygienist Career

In a way, programs like Achieve serve as a sort of ad hoc accelerated degree option, similar to what some schools already offer for bachelor or master’s degree programs. They compress the knowledge requirements for courses and focus on only the details relevant to passing the examination… in effect, putting you through college-level courses in a fraction of the time and cost.

The service boasts a 94% pass rate and claims savings of up to 50% over the full cost of an associate’s program. That’s a potential savings of over $11,000 based on the average costs in the U.S. The credits you earn are identical and the degree you get is indistinguishable… fully accepted by state license boards and the ADHA.

You also have the benefit of starting on your own schedule. While college admissions take time, signing up for exam preparation can be done at any time—in fact you can be taking exams while still going through the college application process, since the testing agencies are independent of the colleges.

Achieve even offers an additional 8-week course that provides career and job search training and guidance… a benefit on top of the college credits you receive.

Although Achieve is currently the only agency offering a dedicated Dental Hygienist Credit-by-Exam Option, as testing-out becomes more widely used and recognized, there are sure to be more options in the near future.