Program types

There are three different program types for dental hygiene education accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA).  

Entry-level: Entry-level programs are for students with no prior dental hygiene education, and prepare graduates for the clinical practice of dental hygiene. These programs are found at vocational institutions, community or technical colleges, or four-year institutions (either connected to an undergraduate institution or to a dental school). In most cases, applicants typically complete mandatory prerequisite coursework prior to applying to or beginning a dental hygiene education program.  

Entry-level programs are broken down further into the following program levels:

  • Entry-level Associate Degree Programs—Graduates are awarded an associate degree upon completion. The average associate degree program is two years and requires an average of 84 credit hours for completion, according to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) 2012 Dental Hygiene Education Program Director Survey.
  • Entry-level Baccalaureate Degree Programs—Graduates are awarded a baccalaureate degree upon completion. The average baccalaureate degree program is four years and requires an average of 120 credit hours for completion. Some programs award a Post-Degree Certificate to students who have previously earned a minimum of an associate degree and complete all requirements of the accredited dental hygiene educational program.
  • Entry-level Post-Baccalaureate Degree Programs—Graduates are awarded a baccalaureate degree upon completion. These programs are for someone who has already obtained a baccalaureate degree in something other than dental hygiene from a four-year undergraduate institution and wishes to earn a subsequent degree in dental hygiene.

Graduates of a CODA-accredited dental hygiene program in all entry-level program types are eligible to sit for licensing exams and can go on to the clinical practice of dental hygiene.

Admission requirements and prerequisites for entry-level programs varies from institution to institution, but generally includes:

  • High school diploma or GED.
  • High school courses in mathematics, chemistry, biology, English.
  • A minimum GPA of 2.0 in high school.
  • College entrance test scores.
  • Up to 40 credit hours of prerequisite college coursework in chemistry, English, speech, psychology and sociology.

A note on licensing: Dental hygienists must graduate from a CODA-accredited dental hygiene program based in an institution of higher education. Hygienists must also be licensed in the state in which they wish to practice. Requirements for licensure vary from state to state, but generally include successful completion of an accredited entry-level program, completion of the written National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, a state or regional clinical examination and a state jurisprudence and ethics examination. Search for a CODA-accredited dental hygiene education program.

Degree Completion:
 Degree completion programs are specifically designed for licensed dental hygienists who have completed their entry-level education, obtained either a certificate or associate degree and are seeking to further their education by earning a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene or a related area. Graduates will earn a baccalaureate degree upon completion of the program. Degree completion programs offer either full- or part-time options, and vary between on-campus or online/distance education options. Dental hygienists possessing a bachelor’s degree have broader career path opportunities available to them within dental hygiene education, administration, public health and corporate dental hygiene sales and education. For more information on nonclinical practice career paths, please visit the Dental Hygiene Career options section of this site.

Graduate: Graduate-level dental hygiene education programs are designed for dental hygienists who have obtained a baccalaureate degree in dental hygiene or a related field, and wish to earn a master’s degree. Dental hygienists with a master’s degree have the most career paths open to them within dental hygiene, particularly in dental hygiene education. Graduate-level programs in dental hygiene typically prepare graduates for careers as educators, administrators, or researchers, with curricula focusing on research methods and applications, health education, leadership and legal/ethical issues in dental hygiene. There is generally little to no clinical component to graduate-level dental hygiene programs.