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Medical Assistant Degree

Prospective medical assistants must learn a wide range of clinical, medical, and administrative competencies. Some choose to apply for accredited college programs, enroll in courses and then graduate with their degree. Others register for non-credit programs that culminate in a comprehensive certification exam.

We’ve included overviews of both associate degree and certification/diploma programs, a financial aid guide and several resources that will help readers decide which option is the best for their budget, schedule and personal preferences.

I. CMA Certification Requirements

Currently, national certification is not universally required for medical assistants. However, it should be noted that many employers prefer hiring candidates that hold CMA certifications and have completed formal training, such as from a medical assistant school. Although other medical assistant certifications are available (see "Additional MA Certifications" for a breakdown), the Certified Medical Assistant is widely regarded as the gold standard when it comes to medical assistant credentials. In order to qualify for the CMA exam, individuals must complete a one-year certificate/diploma program or a two-year associate program accredited by one of the two following organizations:

  • Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES)

Regardless of their chosen educational route, medical assistants nationwide are enjoying an employment boom. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, positions in this industry are expected to rise 23% between 2014 and 2024 ― more than double the projected growth rate for all occupations. If this prediction is correct, then more than 130,000 new jobs will become available over the upcoming years.

Medical assistants are not required to complete any formal training in order to be considered for entry-level positions. However, according to the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), most employers will opt to hire applicants who have been formally trained, such as those who have completed online medical assisting programs.

The Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) Credential

In order to be eligible for the CMA certification (and sit for the final exam), students must complete at least a certificate or diploma program that has been accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Approximately 350 programs offered at community colleges, vocational/technical schools, and other higher-learning institutions -- including online medical assisting programs -- have been accredited by CAAHEP, while over 100 programs in medical assisting have earned accreditation from the ABHES.

In order to be recognized by either of these organizations, a training program must cover the following core subjects:

  • Human anatomy, physiology, and pathology
  • Medical terminology
  • Keyboarding and computer applications
  • Record keeping and accounting
  • Coding and insurance processing
  • Laboratory techniques
  • Clinical and diagnostic procedures
  • Pharmacology
  • Medication administration
  • First aid
  • Office practices
  • Patient relations
  • Medical law and ethics

The cost of a certificate or diploma program will depend on the institution and number of required credits. Medical assistant students should carefully research different certificate and diploma opportunities to determine the one that best fits their budget. See Section III for more information about different ways to pay for school.

II. Medical Assistant Education Requirements

Medical assistant education requirements vary depending on the certification program. Some certifications require the candidate to first graduate from an accredited program, thereby earning both an associate degree and the subsequent certification. Other certification programs carry no previous medical assistant education requirement and confer certified status to anyone who completes the training and earns a passing score on the final exam.

There is no "best" educational option for medical assistants. The right choice for each student will depend on his or her long-term career goals, financial cost of education, employment opportunities, and the type of education he or she wishes to receive.

Medical assistant training programs are available nationwide at community colleges, junior colleges, and vocational/technical schools, as well as four-year public and private universities. Students can also gain training through medical assistant online education programs.

Typically it takes one to two years to become a medical assistant, depending on whether trainees pursue a certificate/diploma program or an associate degree program.

  • Certificate and diploma programs: Certification and diploma programs generally require a one-year commitment. They do not confer credits toward a college degree. Trainees must pass a final exam in order to become certified; once the certification has been earned, graduates may apply for entry-level medical assistant positions.
  • Associate degree programs: These programs generally require a two-year commitment and confer a an associate degree with a specialization in medical assistance. After completing the program, graduates may sit for a certification exam, continue their education by earning a bachelor's degree, or begin applying for entry-level jobs.

Regardless of the specific nature of the program or the credential awarded, medical assistant training will introduce students to a large number of competencies. These include:

  • Medical terminology
  • Clinical procedures
  • Office management techniques
  • Computer and technology skills
  • The fundamentals of medical law and ethics

These competencies are a critical part of the day-to-day life of an MA, so prospective students should expect to become skilled in these areas during their training.

Associate of Applied Science (AAS) Degree Programs

Prospective MAs often earn an associate degree if they plan to continue their education by applying for a bachelor's program, either through campus-based courses or through online medical assisting programs; students who wish to take this route should ensure that all of the credits from their associate program are fully transferable to a four-year institution. Individuals who earn any of these two-year degrees will be prepared to take the certification exam after graduation, which, again, is not a required exam but strongly recommended.

Medical assistants who earn an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) or other accredited, two-year degree at a medical assistant school enjoy a distinct salary advantage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), this credential will make the recipient more competitive in the job market, leading to a greater number of job offers and higher earnings when compared to MAs who did not attend a postsecondary program.

Associate-level medical assistant education programs generally require a commitment of two years. During that time, students will take courses that cover the following clinical and administrative competencies, all of which are integral to the medical assistant profession:

  • Human anatomy/physiology and disease pathology
  • Medical terminology
  • Technology applications
  • Fundamentals of recordkeeping and accounting
  • Medical billing and coding procedures for insurance purposes
  • Procedures for collecting specimens and performing laboratory tests
  • Diagnostic techniques
  • Pharmacology
  • Preparation and administration of different medications (oral, topical, rectal, etc.)
  • CPR and First Aid
  • Office administration and management basics
  • Patient relationship-building strategies
  • Medical law and ethics

In addition to these skills that make up the medical assistant education requirements, associate programs will feature courses in mathematics, physical science, English, social sciences, and other core subjects.

Some associate degree pathways also offer students the chance to earn a specialization in certain niche areas of their profession; commonly offered specializations include office administration, phlebotomy (blood testing), and medical billing and coding. Students interested in earning a specialization should verify their prospective campus-based or online medical assistant programs offer these opportunities before committing to a particular school.

MA Certificates and Diplomas

Aspiring MAs can also choose to receive their training through a one-year diploma or certificate program. Generally speaking, the terms 'certificate' and 'diploma' are interchangeable in regard to the medical assisting profession.

Unlike associate programs, which supplement MA-related clinical and administrative competencies with courses in mathematics, science, English, and other core subjects, certificate and degree programs focus solely on skills and knowledge that specifically pertains to an MA. Studying for one year (as opposed to two) allows students to enter the workforce much quicker; certificates and diplomas are also typically much less expensive than associate degrees.

Certificate and diploma earners are poised to enter the workforce, and will often choose not to continue their education. While their earnings may not be as high as their colleagues with an associate degree, they will also spend much less on college tuition, room and board, and other academic fees required for an accredited course program.

Medical Assistant Online Education Programs

As distance learning software and platforms evolve, medical assistant online education programs are becoming a more popular and more effective alternative for nontraditional students. In these programs, all course materials, discussions and lessons are accessible online. At all accredited schools, coursework and topics will be comparable in quality and scope regardless of an online or on-campus format.

Of course, virtual training exercises can only go so far. In addition to meeting the demands of a rigorous distance-based schedule, students enrolled in online medical assistant programs must complete a certain number of clinical training at an approved healthcare facility in their area.

According to the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), students looking to enroll in a medical assistant online education program should limit their search to programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Without a degree from an accredited school, students will not be considered eligible to sit for the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) exam after graduation.

Medical Assistant Continuing Education

According to AAMA guidelines, the CMA credential must be recertified every 60 months. Medical assistants can choose to renew their CMA status through continuing education or through examination. Note that an expired CMA credential cannot be reactivated through continuing education; those who let their CMA status expire must sit for the CMA Certification/Recertification Examination. More information on medical assistant continuing education can be found here.

III. Financing Your Education

College tuition has steeply increased over the past decade. According to CollegeBoard, the average American during the 2016-17 academic year paid $11,580 per year for in-state tuition and room and board for a two-year program at a public university. In-state residents who earned a four-year degree at a public university paid more than $20,000 per year on average, while out-of-state residents attending public, four-year schools paid around $35,000 for the same credentials. The vast majority of American men and women are unable to pay such costs out-of-pocket. For this reason, financial aid is a key component of the college experience for millions of U.S. college students. This article will explore the different aid options available to people who wish to study medical assisting at the collegiate level, including those enrolled in online medical assisting programs -- even distance-based students are eligible for aid.

Return-on-Investment (ROI)

According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, an ROI of college costs "represents the amount earned by graduates of each school beyond what a typical high school graduate would have earned, after deducting the cost of their education and taking into account the school's six-year graduation rate."

Let's say a student spends $20,000 on tuition for a two-year associate degree program in medical assisting. This credential will allow the student to outearn a high school graduate with no experience in the same position at a flat rate of $3,000 per year. After six years in the position, the student will have effectively earned back $18,000 on the $20,000 in tuition costs. By the end of the seventh year on the job, the student will have received a return on his or her investment. From that point forward, additional earnings yielded from the associate degree will be pure profit.

However, this oversimplified example does not take into account the impact of financial aid on college ROI. According to statistics from Lend Edu, nearly 60% of college grads are left with student loan debt.

Although some forms of financial aid (such as scholarships and certain grants) award monetary support without requiring repayment, the bulk of today's students rely on federal or private loans to finance their education. The total money borrowed, the amount of interest accrued, and the interest rate all affect the borrower's ROI to some degree.

Types of Financial Aid

Students should evaluate ROI when considering different financial aid opportunities. The most sought after forms of aid include the following categories:

  • Loans: The student borrows a lump sum of money from a lender that must exclusively be used to finance tuition, room and board, and other college fees and expenses. Interest begins to accrue as soon as the student begins college; depending on the terms set forth by the lender, the borrower may be required to begin repaying the loan while still in school, but most lenders allow a grace period for the student to earn a degree and begin looking for work before repayment begins (usually 60 to 90 days after graduation).
  • Scholarships: The student applies to a scholarship committee and, if selected, will receive a lump sum of money. With rare exception, scholarship monies will not be repaid. Some scholarships must be used to fund college expenses, while others may be used at the recipient's discretion. Scholarships may be offered by businesses, nonprofits, colleges and universities, private clubs, churches, and other large institutions; some are awarded on the basis of student merit, while others are reserved for certain groups/demographics or students who demonstrate financial need.
  • Grants: Like scholarships, grants are essentially free money for students without the need for repayment ― but unlike scholarships, grants are available through the federal government as well as private institutions. Grants may be merit- or need-based (or a combination of the two).

Generally speaking, students may choose between two types of lender: the federal government or a private institution (usually a bank, credit union, or higher-learning institution). The table below illustrates some of the notable differences between federal and private loans:

Federal Loans Private Loans
Repayment Students will not be required to repay their loans until they graduate, drop out of school, or fall below half-time enrollment. The terms will vary by lender, but many recipients will be required to begin the repayment process while still in school.
Interest Rate Fixed Variable
Subsidization Students who demonstrate financial need may qualify for subsidized loans, for which the government will pay the interest as long as the student is enrolled in school and earning a degree; the student will then pick up the interest payments upon graduating or leaving school Most private loans do not offer any subsidization, and borrowers will be responsible for paying all interest accrued from the loans.
Credit Check Not required (except for PLUS Loans) Usually required
Loan Cosigner Not usually required Often required
Tax-deductible Interest Yes Possibly not
Loan consolidation Yes No
Loan forbearance, deferment, or forgiveness Granted under certain circumstances Usually not granted under any circumstances
Prepayment penalty fee No Varies (students should check with the lender)

For the reasons listed above, most academic experts agree that federal loans provide more overall financial support than loans distributed by private lenders. The federal government offers the following loan options:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans: As stated above, these loans are available to students with significant financial need; the federal government will finance the interest on these loans accrued while the student is enrolled in school.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans: Financial need is not a requirement for these loans, and the student will be responsible for all interest accrued.
  • Direct PLUS Loans: These loans are available to graduate- or professional-level students, or the parents of undergraduate students. The funds are intended to supplement other financial aid sources by covering the remaining costs.
  • Direct Consolidation Loans: This option allows students who receive multiple federal loans to combine all of their debt into a singular loan with one servicer.
  • Federal Perkins Loans: These loans are reserved for students with "exceptional financial need." For these loans, the recipient's school is the servicer; please note that the college or university must participate in the Federal Perkins program in order for the student to be eligible for this option.

Students who wish to apply for and receive any of the federal aid opportunities listed above must be enrolled at a higher-learning institution that has been regionally or nationally accredited. Please visit the official website for Federal Student Aid to learn more about eligibility for different loan options.

Scholarships and Grants

Since repayment is not required for scholarships and grants, students are urged to seek out these two opportunities before committing to federal or private loans. Our page dedicated to scholarships can be found here. On it you'll not only find a list of awards that support aspiring medical assistants in particular, but also a comprehensive database of general awards and grants of interest to any student pursuing a postsecondary certification or degree.

IV. Alternatives to an MA Certification

An associate degree, certification, or diploma in medical assisting will, in all likelihood, serve as an effective entry point for aspiring medical assistants. However, these individuals may also gain the knowledge and training they need by earning an alternative certification. Below we explore certification options beyond the general medical assisting credentials discussed in our associate degree and certification/diploma sections. The following table includes information about educational requirements, exams, competencies, expected earnings, and typical places of employment for five of the most common healthcare certifications.

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)

  • Educational Requirements: LPNs are usually required to complete a program that typically lasts one year in length. These programs incorporate technical nursing competencies, pharmacology, and biology. State nursing boards maintain a list of approved programs. (source)
  • Certification Exam Details: To receive licensure as an LPN, students, must earn a passing score on the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN). (source)
  • Expected Professional Duties:
    • Monitor patients' vital signs
    • Perform invasive procedures (such as IV or catheter insertion)
    • Bathe and dress patient
    • Provide patient status updates to physicians and nursing managers
    • Keep patient records organized and up-to-date (source)
  • Potential Workplaces:
    • Hospitals
    • Clinics
    • Retirement/ nursing homes
    • Schools
    • Government facilities
    • Correctional institutions (source)
  • Average Salary: $43,170 per year, or $20.76 per hour (source)

Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA)

  • Educational Requirements: Certified Nurse Assistants must complete an educational program (usually one year in length) that has been state- approved. (source)
  • Certification Exam Details: Upon completing their approved program, CNAs must pass a competency exam that will be specific to the state in which the CNA wishes to seek employment. CNAs who pass the exam will be placed on a state registry, and free to apply for statewide jobs. (source)
  • Expected Professional Duties:
    • Bathe and clean patients
    • Assist patients with grooming and bathroom duties
    • Help patients transition between their bed and wheelchairs or other assistive transport device
    • Measure temperature, blood pressure, and other vital signs
    • Serve patient meals and assist with eating (source)
  • Potential Workplaces:
    • Hospitals
    • Residential facilities
    • Patient homes
    • Government institutions and installations (such as military bases and correctional facilities) (source)
  • Average Salary: $25,710 per year, or $12.36 per hour (source)

Radiologic/ MRI Technician

  • Educational Requirements: Most radiologic and MRI technicians (informally known as x-ray technicians) can earn a certificate or associate/ bachelor's degree in their field. The Joint Review Committee on Education in Radiologic Technology (JRCERT) is the organization that accredits educational programs in this field. (source)
  • Certification Exam Details: Professionals in this field must earn certification from the American Registry of Radiologic Technicians (ARRT) by passing a final exam in radiography. (source)
  • Expected Professional Duties:
    • Maintain and operate imaging equipment used to conduct x-rays, MRIs, and other body scans
    • Prep patients for these procedures and keep them safe during the scans
    • Use computerized equipment to record the scan
    • Evaluate the images with physicians to properly diagnose patient
    • Organize and maintain patient records (source)
  • Potential Workplaces:
    • Hospitals
    • Physician's offices
    • Specialty clinics
    • Medical/ diagnostic laboratories
    • Outpatient care centers (source)
  • Average Salary: $58,120 per year, or $27.94 per hour (source)

Phlebotomy Technician

  • Educational Requirements: Most phlebotomy technicians earn a specialized postsecondary credential that may or may not award an accredited degree. However, formal education is not necessarily required, and individuals may obtain entry-level employment with a high school diploma (source)
  • Certification Exam Details: Phlebotomy technicians must be certified in the states of California, Louisiana, and Nevada; certification is optional in all other states. Several organizations offer certification for phlebotomy technicians, including The National Center for Competency Testing, the American Society for Clinical Pathology, and the American Medical Technologists; specific requirements will vary by provider (source)
  • Expected Professional Duties:
    • Collect blood samples from patients and/or blood donors
    • Discuss blood-taking procedures with patient
    • Certify patients and donors are eligible to give blood
    • Input donor data into a network database
    • Keep all phlebotomy instruments in sterile, working order (source)
  • Potential Workplaces:
    • Hospitals
    • Physician's offices
    • Medical/ diagnostic laboratories
    • Blood donation centers (source)
  • Average Salary: $31,630 per year, or $15.21 per hour (source)

Dental Assistant

  • Educational Requirements: Educational requirements vary by state; some states require graduation from an accredited college program, while others do not require any formal education. Those who do attend college usually gain all of the required knowledge and training through a two-year degree program; the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) is the organization that accredits these degree programs. (source)
  • Certification Exam Details: In order to work in states that require certification, dental assistants must pass the CDA exam offered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). This exam has three major components: General Chairside, Radiation Health and Safety; and Infection Control (source)
  • Expected Professional Duties:
    • Prep patients for the dentist by performing some cursory examinations
    • Sterilize instruments and ready the dentist's work area
    • Process dental x-rays and utilize instruments (such as suction devices) during the dentist's examination
    • Schedule patient appointments
    • Instruct patients about good oral hygiene practices (source)
  • Potential Workplaces:
    • Almost all dental assistants work in dental offices
    • One in three are employed on a part-time basis (source)
  • Average Salary: $35,980 per year, or $17.30 per hour (source)