"How quickly can I graduate?" and other things to ponder

Take the investment you might be considering by returning to school to complete your bachelor's degree.

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By Diane Paz, RDH, EF, BSDH, MEd

Have you ever forgotten to read the "fine print"? It's easy to do. Buy one, get one free! Over 35 mpg! Lose 10 pounds in one week! Really? Wait a minute.

"Buy one, get one free … but pay separate shipping and handling."

"Over 35 mpg … on a closed course in optimum conditions."

"Lose 10 pounds in one week … but results are not typical and your results may vary."

In reality, we don't always take the time to read the "fine print." We see and hear what we want to.

Take the investment you might be considering by returning to school to complete your bachelor's degree. If you are an avid reader of this journal and other dental hygiene magazines, you are well aware of the explosion of online courses and programs available. So how do you choose the appropriate program for achieving your personal best? What's the best way to get that degree?

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Consider reading these articles by Paz

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You might be thinking, "I can do this fast and easy by doing everything online." But hold on there. Read the fine print and you'll find online education isn't the simple route to a college degree by any means.

Carolyn Gist, an adviser at the University of Texas at Arlington, puts it this way: "Many students want to quickly earn their degree with an online accelerated program, but they don't understand or respect the amount of time required for studying. Successful students understand this and are willing to work at a pace that takes into account all that they have to do, and those are the students who most often complete their educational goals."

If you think back to your dental hygiene program, you are probably proud of the hard work and effort it took to achieve and master your skills. When you hear about preceptorships or allowing dental assistants a wider scope of duty, you naturally become protective of your domain. You want to be sure that any new programs or models for new providers are as rigorous as what you endured.

Unfortunately, not every school is looking out for your best interest. As in all programs of study, there are schools that market themselves to the less-informed. These "diploma mills" will merely give you a worthless piece of paper for your work and money.

There are also those students who, for whatever reason, will settle for a degree in name only with little substance. This seems unfair based on the level of effort we all invested to earn our original associate degree or certificate.

If you've ever considered furthering your education, it proves that you are a lifelong learner. Most hygienists are like that. Why? The answer is easy: Advanced education can only benefit the patient and improve the profession by demonstrating to the community at large that we are well-educated professionals.

Of course, continuing education must be backed up by solid, evidence-based courses. In fact, one of the reasons for the expansion of degree completion programs is that for many years, the ADHA has tossed around the idea that perhaps a bachelor's degree should be the minimal entry requirement to the field. In addition, many new models, including the Advanced Dental Hygiene Practitioner, require additional education.

So where do you begin?

Let's start by looking at some key issues you should consider for your education.

Accreditation: The Big Picture

An important factor to consider is the accreditation of your school of interest. Ensuring the accreditation meets your goals can help you avoid re-work, lost time, wasted money, and huge disappointment.

Accreditation is important because it helps you avoid having to retake classes to meet admissions or degree program requirements. Moreover, proper accreditation is important for meeting requirements to take professional exams and board exams. Can you imagine completing a career-focused degree program and then finding out your hard work doesn't qualify you to get licensed or certified? Unfortunately, this happens far too often.

Be sure to ask any prospective school about their accreditation. Then play it safe. Verify what you are told, and visit the Department of Education website to confirm the accreditation has been recognized.

Regional Accreditation

If an online college chooses to apply for regional accreditation, it is evaluated by the regional agency that presides over its home state. There are six bodies that can award regional accreditation. Each is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. You can learn more about these regional accrediting agencies, including which schools they accredit, by visiting their individual websites.

In the United States, there are six regional accrediting agencies. Each covers a different section of the country:

  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (NEASC-CIHE)
  • North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, The Higher Learning Commission (NCA-HLC)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC-WASC)
  • WASC Senior College and University Commission

National Accreditation

National accreditation is not based on geography. Rather, it was designed to evaluate specific types of schools and colleges. For example, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology evaluates career schools and technology programs, whereas the Distance Education and Training Council accredits colleges that offer distance education.

Often, schools apply for national accreditation when their model of instruction or their course content is different from most "traditional" degree programs. Regional accrediting agencies may not be able to compare a career school with a liberal arts college, because the modes of study are so dissimilar.

National accreditation allows nontraditional colleges (trade schools, religious schools, certain online schools) to be compared against similarly designed institutions. Different standards and categories are measured, depending on the type of school in question.

Transferability of Credits

Whereas nationally accredited institutions will usually accept credit from regionally or nationally accredited institutions, regionally accredited schools often do not accept credit from nationally accredited institutions.

Considering that state colleges and universities are all regionally accredited, and that state schools are an inexpensive local option for many students, this is definitely something to keep in mind. Regional accreditation may be desired and/or required for those who hope to continue on with their education and for those who eventually might consider teaching for state colleges.

Tuition Cost

Another important issue is cost. There are a few nationally accredited schools that may be inexpensive, and low tuition rates can be enticing. However, if you're eligible for financial aid and scholarships, you may be able to minimize the cost difference that comes with a regionally accredited school.

Acceptability by Prospective Employers

Realistically speaking, most employers may not know the difference between the two types of accreditation. However, if you run into concerns about your school or its accreditation, you may want to direct your employer to the U.S. Department of Education's website on accreditation issues.

If you have a specific employer in mind, you might want to ask a human resources employee about the schools you are considering.

As a final thought, the investment of time and money is yours to decide. You must evaluate the program you're considering and what you hope to gain by completing the course of study.

The old adages, "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is," and "Buyer, beware," and "You get what you pay for," should all resonate with you prior to signing on the dotted line.

Diane Paz earned her CDA and RDH from Phoenix College, and her BSDH, EF, and MEd from Northern Arizona University. She is currently an associate clinical professor at Northern Arizona University, instructing in the Bachelor's of Science Degree Completion Program. She can be reached at Diane.Paz@ nau.edu.

References

College Accreditation - Regional vs National Accreditation (2013). Retrieved from http://www.elearners.com/online-education-resources/degrees-and-programs/regional-accreditation-vs-national-accreditation/

Gist, C. (2011). Online vs. Classroom: Which Is Right for You? Retrieved from http://www.fastweb.com/student-life/article/3235-online-vs-classroom-which-is-right-for-you

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