That college degree thing

May 1, 2002
I'm gratified to see that the Readers' Forum continues to thrive

I'm gratified to see that the Readers' Forum continues to thrive. When e-mail became the preferred method of communication, I thought the days of writing "letters to the editor" were numbered. Since an author's e-mail address typically appears with an article, readers can bypass the magazine by contacting the author directly. Secondly, RDH is a monthly publication; a letter that you write to us today will appear in the July or August issues. Magazines kind of lumber along at a slow, but familiar pace. On the other hand, you easily can access any of the Internet discussion groups for dental hygiene and discuss an RDH article to your heart's content within minutes of reading it.

Thankfully, though, the letters keep coming, and Readers' Forum continues to be published.

While preparing for this issue, I noticed a peculiar reaction to the March 2002 issue. Most of the letters to the editor were written about one small part of the 108-page issue - another letter to the editor. I had to go back and read the original letter from Karen Schacher, RDH, of Elkhorn, Neb. Just what did she say?

Ms. Schacher was dismayed by quotes culled from the 2001 salary and benefits survey initiated by RDH. Published in the January 2002 issue, the survey results indicated a wide variety of opinions about working conditions in dental hygiene. The article was titled, "The good, the bad, and the ugly," and some of the "ugly" quotes prompted Ms. Schacher to write, "If we want better, we have to go looking [for better working conditions]. Not everything comes right to us."

The overall purpose of her letter, as well as her suggestion to search for better opportunities, certainly seemed logical and reasonable. It's how she dotted the i's and crossed the t's that prompted quite a few readers to sit down and write a letter. For example, Ms. Schacher also wrote, "Many hygienists today receive a compromised education ... I just hope those with associate degrees/preceptorship training are not expecting what more educated hygienists are receiving."

Yes, those two phrases irritated every hygienist who has proudly earned an associate's degree. If you want to read their comments, please turn to the Readers' Forum.

I honestly don't think the amount of time spent in college classrooms has a profound effect on your general state of happiness about a career choice. Too many other factors - employers, professional restrictions, lifestyle preferences, etc. - deserve the credit. In my view, the associate's degree vs. bachelor's degree issue does have an effect on the profession in three ways:

The outside world - If you leave dental hygiene, can you advance into a different career more quickly with a bachelor's degree or an associate's degree? Human resource professionals coordinate recruiting for corporations. If both degrees are acceptable under the established criteria for the job, it makes sense for the recruiter to think, "Round one of this interview goes to the guy with the bachelor's degree." On the other hand, if you're satisfied with a lifelong commitment to dental hygiene, the choice of which degree really doesn't matter that much to the profession's primary employer, dentists. The main consideration, hopefully, is, "Can you make a difference in the level of disease in my practice?"

Politics - Every year, dental hygiene must counter or initiate regulatory action, and dentists are on the other side of the fence. Let's say you're a politician seated comfortably on the dais at a hearing. One person testifying has a doctorate. The other person may have a bachelor's degree, but probably has an associate's degree. Which testimony will be more compelling to the politician? This, of course, applies to any situation where a member of the public has to decide between the opinion of a dental hygienist vs. that of a dentist. Yes, this is very unfair, but it happens. I have a bachelor's degree from Southern Methodist University. If I'm arguing publicly with someone who has a master's degree from Harvard, I acknowledge the disadvantage that may exist in the minds of others who are listening.

Familiar argument? – Some two-year graduates enrolled solely because of a junior college's outstanding reputation. But many do so because they lacked the time and/or financial resources to pursue a bachelor's degree. Junior colleges are a lifesaver for many talented people. I need to point out, though, that the preceptor-trained hygienists in Alabama often say the same thing about their program. Preceptorship allows them to pursue a career that was not open to them because of some sort of restraint against attending a two-year or four-year program.

Where do we draw the line? Make no mistake about it; Alabama residents believe that the graduates of the program are registered dental hygienists, regardless of what you "snooty" two-year or four-year grads think.

Should the profession also strongly encourage all colleagues to earn, at a minimum, the equivalent of a bachelor's degree at some point during their careers?

Mark Hartley is the editor of RDH. He can be contacted at [email protected].