How to Choose a Program

Selecting the right medical assistant program ensures that you can pursue your desired career path in the medical field. As your academic experience can determine your future career opportunities, you should carefully research and choose a program that sets you up for success. Consider a variety of factors when looking for a program, including program delivery, cost, accreditation, class schedules, course options, and location. By doing your research, you ensure that you don’t waste time looking at schools that don’t offer the components you need. This guide outlines how to choose between medical assistant programs and highlights important factors that learners should take into account as they start applying for schools.

Program Delivery: Online vs. On-Campus

Prospective students need to carefully consider program delivery when choosing accredited medical assistant schools. While many students want the on-campus higher education experience complete with classroom coursework and fellow students they see on a regular basis, online learning offers an appealing option to learners who need more flexibility. With the ability to work from anywhere with internet access, online medical assistant programs provides convenience to many students. Online students can enroll in out-of-state or far-away programs, avoid commuting to campus, and continue to work full time if they need.

In addition to this flexibility, online learning offers generally lower program costs. Most online programs charge less per credit than their on-campus counterparts. Students may also take advantage of online programs that do not charge additional fees for out-of-state applicants. Online programs offer an equivalent level of academic rigor as traditional programs. Success in an online program, as in an on-campus program, requires motivation, self-discipline, and organization. Online learners must manage their coursework and deadlines on their own, without the benefit of a class moving consistently at the same pace. Online programs make a great option for independent and active learners.

Factors to Consider When Choosing an Online Medical Assistant Program

Hybrid/Blended Learning: Consider the differences in hybrid and fully online learning formats. Hybrid options combine learning styles, often posting coursework online but requiring in-class attendance for certain course components. Students can complete in-person lab work and medical training, working directly with other students. You may want to select a blended program if you enjoy interacting with fellow students and teachers, but also need the flexibility of online and accessible coursework. Keep in mind that you may only see limited course selections and time slots for your on-campus portions; you need to accommodate the school’s schedule into your home and work calendars. Entirely online programs do not require on-campus time, though students often correspond with other learners through online forums. If you live far away from campus, a fully online program may present the most feasible option.

Synchronous or Asynchronous: Each program differs in terms of course format and presentation style, and you should choose the program schedule that accommodates your personal needs. When you see that a school offers a synchronous format, it means that courses occur at set times throughout the week. In this presentation style, students attend courses in real time and proceed through the materials at the same pace as their classmates, often interacting with fellow students and their teachers through video conferencing or web chatting. Asynchronous programs, on the other hand, allow students to complete their coursework at their own pace. With all their learning materials available on the web, students may discuss their coursework in online forums but the learning style offers a much more independent approach. Asynchronous programs offer an excellent option for learners who need to work while earning their degree, and for those with inflexible schedules.

Class Size: Online students may forget to consider class size and student-to-faculty ratios when evaluating online programs. While this may seem less important than some other variables, students should still consider these factors. Large class sizes may mean that teachers provide less feedback to individual students as they attempt to sift through hundreds of assignments. Coursework type may also be graded by automated systems rather than by hand. When the student-to-faculty ratio pairs dozens of students with only one professor, students may also see less personalized attention. While independent learners or those that previously completed advanced or online coursework may thrive in these conditions, if you tend to desire more communication with fellow students and teachers then smaller class sizes may provide a better learning environment. Realistically evaluating your personal learning style and the amount of support you need before signing up for a program better prepares you to make an appropriate selection.

Personal Learning Style: Choosing a program that suits your individual learning style plays a huge role in your educational success. When choosing between an online or on-campus degree, consider what type of teaching best suits you. Online learners need to self-pace and closely monitor their assignments, workload, and due dates to ensure they do not miss any deadlines. Independent, motivated, organized, and disciplined students tend to do well in these online learning environments. Students who rely more on teacher and fellow student support and in-classroom structure may find themselves better suited for on-campus, hybrid, or synchronous online programs. Numerous online medical assistant programs are available that fit into each of these options, and each school caters to different learning preferences and curriculum focuses. Research the specialization of each program in addition to class size, student-to-teacher ratio, coursework structure, presentation style, group learning opportunities, and timeframe before selecting your final choice.

Internships or Practicums: Most medical assistant programs require a clinical practicum component or an externship. In these projects, students gain experience hours in the field while shadowing a credentialed medical assistant or related healthcare professional. They introduce students to different medical specialities and office settings, provide a chance for aspiring medical assistants to use the skills they learned in class in a practical setting, and allow students to network in a professional environment. For learners completing an online program, practicum projects can usually take place at a setting convenient for them. Learners should try and find a location not only near them, but also focused on one of their interest areas. For example, if they know they want to work in sports medicine, they could complete their externship in an orthopedics practice. Because externship hours count as experience hours, strategically focusing a project can assist with future employment opportunities.

Choosing an Accredited Program

All prospective students should ensure that they select an accredited program. Accreditation demonstrates that a school has undergone external examination by an agency approved by either the U.S. Department of Education (ED) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). When one of these approved agencies awards a school accreditation, it indicates that the program meets or exceeds national standards. Accrediting agencies hold both online and on-campus programs to the same standards. Choosing an accredited medical assistant school ensures that all your hard work toward your degree also prepares you for future certifications and employment. Many employers evaluate prospective employees’ school accreditation status. Additionally, if you hope to transfer from an online program to an on-campus program, or between schools, your credits must come from an accredited program. You also may only receive federal financial aid if you plan on attending an accredited institution. You can view CHEA’s databases of approved institutions and programs here.

National vs. Regional Accreditation

Two types of accreditation for higher education institutions exist: regional and national. One of six accrediting bodies approved by CHEA award regional accreditation. Which regional accrediting agency pairs with which school is determined by location. The vast majority of public and private liberal arts schools hold regional accreditation, a marker of high academic standards. National accreditors do not evaluate schools by location but rather by expertise. National accreditation generally applies to technical and vocational schools rather than those with broad-based educational curriculums. Many employers view regional accreditation as superior to national accreditation.

A school or program’s accreditation status may significantly impact students wishing to transfer credits between schools. Credits from a nationally accredited school generally do not transfer to regionally accredited ones. However, credits from regionally accredited schools do typically transfer to nationally accredited institutions. You can find out your schools accreditation status on the ED or CHEA websites.

Programmatic Accreditation

Schools already accredited by either a regional or national body may also receive programmatic accreditation for their specific programs. Programmatic accreditation goes to specialized or professional programs within a university that demonstrate superior curriculum and faculty. Ensure that you choose both an accredited medical assistant school and an accredited medical assisting program within that school. Two main agencies accredit medical assisting programs: the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools. Your program must receive accreditation from one of these two bodies in order for you to sit the medical assistant certification examination, and most employers prefer candidates with this certification. Additionally, accredited programs offer students access to federal student aid, a necessity for many learners. And, should you choose to go on to complete an advanced degree, your credits from an accredited program are more likely to transfer to your next program.

Program Type

The level of degree you choose to pursue heavily influences your future career prospects. The more advanced the degree, the more employment options open up with correspondingly higher salaries. If just beginning your research on medical assisting schools or choosing between medical and dental assisting, explore this page on medical assistant programs and certifications. It provides an overview of degree types, links to helpful resources for prospective applicants, and detailed information on career prospects and salary outcomes.

Diploma or Certificate Program: A diploma or certificate program in medical assisting generally takes one year, focuses primarily on career-specific technical and clinical skills, and prepares for certification and direct entry into the workforce.

Associate Degree: A two-year associate degree in medical assisting covers all integral administrative and clinical skills needed for certification and additionally supplements with general studies coursework.

Bachelor’s Degree: A bachelor’s degree with an allied health specialization is typically aimed at students who have previously completed a medical assistant associate degree. Learners can often finish this program in five semesters.

Cost and Financial Aid

When selecting your medical assistant program, consider cost in your decision-making process. Professional education can require a significant investment, and your financial flexibility may impact the schools that you can reasonably apply to. The cost of each program depends on several factors, including the degree type, program length, and any additional fees, such as required lab equipment, materials, or textbooks. Whether you attend full or part time also plays a role. Read on for more information on some of the different types of schools and how cost and financial aid options can vary between them.

Public vs. Private Schools

A school’s status as private or public greatly influences the cost of tuition and, ultimately, the cost of obtaining a medical assistant certification. Private schools receive their funding from donations and tuition fees. As such, their tuition tends to cost significantly more as it contributes to the continued running of the school. Private schools often enroll fewer students and maintain a lower student-to-faculty ratio, and many offer concentrated specialization options unique to their programs. As many private schools hold prestigious reputations, fierce competition often arises between applicants.

Public schools, supervised by the state, obtain their funding through subsidies and state taxes. The differences in their funding can result in significantly lower tuition costs for students. However, students attending a public school outside of their home state may pay the same or more than they would at a private school to take advantage of another area’s programs funded by taxes they did not pay. Public universities trend toward offering more degree options but less specialized courses, and you can generally expect much bigger class sizes. Both types of school offer financial aid, grants, and scholarships. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to get more specialized information on your federal student aid funding options.

In-State vs. Out-of-State Schools

Attending school at an in-state versus an out-of-state school can make a significant difference in the total tuition cost of your medical assisting program. Residency plays a major factor in tuition, and out-of-state students may pay, on average, around $15,000 more per year than their in-state counterparts, depending on the state, their enrollment status, and the program type and length. In addition to universities evaluating them more competitively, out-of-state students may also find funding more difficult to come by despite their higher tuition responsibility. In fact, many out-of-state students do not receive enough funding to cover their non-resident tuition. They instead need to apply for merit-based scholarships that often only go to the very top students. Consider your funding options and possible tuition costs carefully when selecting the right medical assistant program for your needs. The table below highlights average in-state, out-of-state, and private college tuition costs for the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 academic years.

In-State vs. Out-of-State College Tuition Prices

  2016-2017 2017-2018
Public 4-year In-State College $9,670 $9,970
Public 4-Year Out-of-State College $24,820 $25,620
Private 4-Year Nonprofit College $33,520 $34,740

Two-Year vs. Four-Year Schools

The length of your chosen medical assistant degree also significantly impacts your total tuition cost. Generally, medical assisting requires at least one year of specialized education for certification. An associate degree typically takes two years, while a bachelor’s degree may require four or more years of schooling to complete all the necessary credits. A one-year certificate or two-year associate program clearly cost less than a four-year program partly because they take so much less time. Students looking for less expensive tuition options may also want to consider earning their degree from a community college, which is generally a more frugal choice. Earning an associate degree from a community college typically costs less than earning the same degree from a four-year public school. Take a look at the table below for a breakdown of two-year versus four-year college tuition pricing over the last two academic years.

Two-Year vs. Four-Year College Tuition Prices

  2016-2017 2017-2018
Public Two-Year In-District College $3,470 $3,570
Public Four-Year In-State College $9,670 $$9,970

Online vs. On-Campus Programs

The cost of medical assisting programs can vary dramatically depending on degree level, program type, and full- or part-time enrollment status. Certificates typically cost the least, while associate and bachelor’s degrees cost more. Online programs typically offer the less expensive option, since students in on-campus programs must also cover the additional costs of commuting, daycare, parking, and room and board fees. Both types of programs, however, do allow students to receive financial aid as needed. The following table shows the difference in average room and board fees between public and private colleges.

Room and Board Fees

  2016-2017 2017-2018
Public 4-Year In-State/Out-of-State College $10,480 $10,800
Private Nonprofit 4-year College $11,850 $12,210

Program Reputation

Consider a program’s academic reputation before making your final decision. A school’s reputation can provide a good indicator of course relevancy and future student success. Moreover, a positive reputation may assist graduates in the job search, as employers may feel more comfortable hiring from schools with recognized quality in academic and professional training.

  • Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) Exam Pass Rate: A higher CMA exam pass rate corresponds to a better program reputation. Look for this rate on each school’s website, or reach out to the school directly for more information.
  • Graduate Job Placement Rate: A program’s job placement rate provides an indicator of how well local health organizations regard the school, and may also demonstrate a school’s involvement in student job searches.
  • Teacher Credentials: Most schools provide a list of teacher credentials on their website, which provides insight into the type and relevancy of each program’s instruction. You should look for instructors with extensive experience in the field.
  • Accreditation Status: Accreditation status remains a vital indicator of program quality. Look on the ED or CHEA website to ensure that your selected school holds both institutional and program-specific accreditation.