Should Dental Hygiene Programs Graduate Students with a Bachelor’s Degree?

© Aaron Amat / Adobe Stock

An exciting part about dental hygiene’s foray into diversity has been the shunning of ageism. No, the sycophantic rookies and the old bats still squabble. I’m referring to the general demographic layout of the dental hygiene profession. For example, the diversity of age prevents me from saying that everyone who graduated from dental hygiene school between 2007 and 2015 are now between 25 and 34 years old.

Back then, the federal government just whistled, and everyone came running. The feds said there were going to be thousands and thousands of well-paying jobs requiring minimal training. The fellow just caught your eye and beckoned you over. “Listen, sweetheart. Why would you want to keep doing what you’re doing? There’s gold in them hills over yonder. With just a little bit of training, we’ll send you over there to pick up nuggets as huge as cantaloupes. The training? Eh, maybe a couple of years, and it may feel like three years by the time you’re done. But you’ll know how to use that gold-digging equipment with perfect precision, just picking through those rocks like a pro. Let’s sign you up today, OK?”

How did the dental hygiene profession ever forgive the federal government for the job trap that served only one purpose, helping to elect politicians who fulfilled their promises of jobs during an economic downturn? I do not know, and we also don’t know the ages of those dental hygienists who did the forgiving. We do know they were more diversified by race, and we know that men, too, fell for the lure of the employment bonanza offered by dental hygiene.

The reason I point this out is because it’s hard for me to visualize a face every time someone asks me, “Do you think the profession should require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree to practice dental hygiene?”

Dental hygiene had succeeded with its efforts to be more diversified by the time of the Great Recession, including with age. I suspect there are some older members of the profession who can’t believe they fell hard for the lure into dental hygiene. We see them in social media frequently as they freely discuss plans to get the hell out, finding another career.

Even though I can’t see them, this group of dental hygienists is the main reason I feel bad every time I answer the question. The answer, of course, is, “Yes!” All dental hygienists should be required to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree.  This group of hygienists, though, were caught off-guard by inaccurate job forecasts. They likely still have student debt that seems downright formidable and depressing. And, what do you know, here’s Mark Hartley telling you that you ought to go ahead and finish out for the bachelor’s degree.

These hygienists have been through enough, right? Just leave them be, and we can hope they don’t leave the profession outright. We can hope that they find a dental home worth having. We can hope the elation they felt when they saw a bright future ahead returns. Dental hygiene can be a good place. And, there is gold here.

But the profession would have so much more leverage with the perception among the public that all dental hygienists have a bachelor’s degree. It wouldn’t solve all challenges within the political arena where dentists also want to have input; in my mind, though, the bachelor’s degree would help ensure better footing for the dental hygiene profession.

By the way, I was asked the question just recently. “Should all hygienists have a bachelor’s degree?” My reply was emphatic. “Yes!” But I kept trying to see the faces of every dental hygienist who would resent that challenge. The main resentment, of course, is, “I already earn the same amount of money that most of my friends with bachelor’s degree earn.” A secondary objection would be, “Politics! Politics! Politics! That’s all people like you think about! My office delivers great care. They’re nice to me, especially when I need to take time off for the kids. Can you just zip your lips, please?”

The problem is that I have witnessed the casual disregard of the dental hygiene profession by members of the public. Education requirements are a relevant factor when discussing the reasons why. There’s a lack of clarity (in the public’s mind) about the science and training required for dental hygienists.

If not a bachelor’s degree, how do we change that perception?

At Today’s RDH, we would like to know how you would feel about a requirement to earn a bachelor’s degree. At this link, can you give us a brief explanation of why you feel that way?