Dental Assistant Degree vs. Certificate: Choosing the Best Career Path

Dental assistant smiles while looking at an x-ray of a patient’s teeth

Thinking about becoming a dental assistant? You’re doing your research — and that’s a great first step!

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the job outlook for dental assistants is favorable. Specifically, it estimates a faster than the average growth rate of 7% through 2032.

So, how do you become a dental assistant? The first thing to recognize is that the answer to that question does vary based on the state you live in.

In California, for example, if you’re looking to become a registered dental assistant (RDA) you must “graduate from a California Board-approved RDA educational program”, per the Dental Assisting National Board. So if you’re an RDA in another state and are looking to transfer your license over, that will not be possible.

More likely, if you find yourself here, you’re looking to understand if a dental assistant certificate or degree is the best path forward. Thankfully, California does allow for several types of dental assistants:

  • Unlicensed assistants
  • Certified dental assistants (CDA)
  • Registered dental assistants (RDA)
  • Registered dental assistants in Extended Functions (RDAEF)

Let’s explore that some more.

What is a Dental Assistant?

Dental assistants “are responsible for providing hands-on support to Dentists and completing prep work so they [dentists] can more efficiently care for patients.”, as Indeed notes. In their day-to-day role, dental assistants may:

  • Fill out paperwork and update patient records
  • Sterilize and/or organize dental tools
  • Assist dentists during dental procedures

Whether a dental assistant is certified, registered, or registered in extended functions will also ultimately determine job scope and duties.

Dental Assistant Certificate vs. Degree in California

As mentioned earlier, California allows for several types of dental assistants. Certified dental assistants and registered dental assistants are two of the most common. The difference between CDAs and RDAs comes down to level of education, training, credentialing, and capabilities.

The following are responsibilities that only an RDA can perform:

  • Dental office preparation
  • Instrument disinfection and sterilization
  • Flouride treatments
  • Obtaining patient’s dental records
  • Maintenance of patient charts
  • Patient education on oral care
  • Insurance forms management
  • Billing Management
  • Preparing X-Ray machines, anesthetics, cement, and impression materials
  • Providing and handling instruments during procedures
  • Patient scheduling and handling
  • Dental maintenance and supply record

Whereas there are no California state requirements for CDAs, who are certified on a national level by the Dental Assisting National Board, there are several for RDAs. Because California requires RDAs to have graduated from a California Board-approved RDA educational program, what this means in practice is that you’ll likely be looking into attending a degree program if you want to become an RDA.

Unlicensed dental assistants in California, meanwhile, must maintain BLS certification under the supervision of their employer as well as complete the following within a year of employment, according to DANB:

  • A California Board-approved 2-hour course in the California Dental Practice Act, AND
  • A California Board-approved 8-hour course in infection control, AND
  • An ASHI, AHA, or ARC-approved course in BLS or any other course approved by the board as equivalent which includes hands-on simulated clinical scenarios

Becoming registered in extended functions (RDAEF) in California, meanwhile, is even more involved than becoming an RDA. However, it can expand the career opportunities and income potential of a dental assistant significantly.

Dental Assistant Certificate vs Associate’s Degree

People often wonder if it’s better to get a dental assistant certificate or associate’s degree, and the answer is that it depends on whether you want to become a CDA or RDA. Dental assistant certification allows you to become a CDA. Most RDA course programs provide the student an Associate’s Degree upon graduation. But there are some dental assistant bachelor’s degree programs.

Learn More About Becoming a Dental Assistant in CA

Interested in learning more about becoming a dental assistant in California and determining if the CDA, RDA, or RDAEF path is best for your needs, budget, and schedule? Explore our dental assistant programs at Howard Academy now.

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