As American students and their families increasingly try to assess the true value of higher education, the real question remains—how is their education going to set them up for a long-term, fulfilling career?
Through generations, there was an assumption that a college degree in one hand would virtually guarantee you a job in the other. Often, the vision was that a four-year degree in any subject was the ticket into a corporation with the promise of promotion through the ranks and retirement with a pension. Those norms, however, are now very much in the rearview mirror.
For students today, the focus is on which college they’re going to attend as well as what programs the college offers that will actually give them a path to a career. And for so many, the choice turns to healthcare, the nation’s largest employer with thousands of well-paying careers. The biggest and most attractive benefit? Those careers, ones that are vital to maintaining the health of our population, are accessible to two-year associate degree holders, not just those with four-year, eight-year, or 10-year degrees.
According to the United States Census, the average age of Americans grew from 35.1 in the year 2000 to 37.2 in 2010 and 38.2 in 2018. As the population continues to expand and live longer, access to and staffing of healthcare across all disciplines will continue to grow in demand. Oral care and dental practitioners are no exception.
In fact, the Mayo Clinic reports that regular health cleanings and oral scans are critically important to reducing the risks that can lead to heart disease, diabetes, strokes, and even complications in pregnancy. A recent study found a tie between a certain type of gum infection and Alzheimer’s disease, which is now plaguing one of nine Americans over the age of 65.
Dental hygienists are the key to providing this type of preventive care and reducing these risks. Even better, dental hygiene is a college-level program that students can complete in as little as two years and earn a licensure that lands them in a tangible career.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that, by 2028, the number of dental hygienist jobs will grow by 11% to meet an increasing gap in need versus accessibility. Also, the average annual salary for dental hygienists is currently $74,820. These findings are exceptionally encouraging to our current students and especially to our 38 recent dental hygienist graduates.
In 2017, Plaza College realized the demand for hygienists was grossly unfulfilled by a lack of programs to train them. So, we launched New York City’s first new dental hygiene program in more than a quarter-century. For a city of nearly 10 million residents, where the ratio of hygienists to patients is 21 to 100,000, the need for a new program was clear.
The program, now one of four in New York City, provides our students with a hands-on, immersive education. Their education is not only gained in a classroom, but in our Community Dental Clinic, working and interacting with actual patients under the supervision of our resident dentists. Our students “get in there” and do what they’d do in the real world. They meet with schoolchildren, adults, and seniors, and they create relationships, gain invaluable interpersonal skills, and provide their patients with the most in-depth cleaning they’ve ever received.
One of the best parts of the program, though, is the fact that the students aren’t the only ones that benefit from such training. Many residents of New York City simply cannot afford basic dental care. That also is the case throughout the country, where some 74 million American families do not have dental insurance. Our community, where the need is clearly so great, benefits from having such a form of accessible and affordable oral care in our clinic. The program truly gives back.
Now the real question for us, as professionals educating the future of our industry, remains how we will attract and recruit the wide-eyed, eager students looking for the program that’s going to give them access to a career. How will we capture their attention and train them into the next generation of caring and dedicated providers that will keep our nation healthy?
Ms. Sleeper is a registered dental hygienist and the director of New York City-based Plaza College’s Dental Hygiene program. In 2019, Plaza College became New York City’s first ADA accredited Dental Hygiene program in more than 27 years.