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Is Returning to School a Good Return on Investment?

Is Returning to School a Good Return on Investment?
Michele LaBasi

I just got a call from someone asking for my input. She knows of my decades of experience in dental hygiene. Sherri is 57, newly divorced, and has experience as a certified dental assistant. Currently, she is struggling to finish a math course she needs as a pre-requisite to get into a dental hygiene program. Unfortunately, she lives in a state in the US which doesn’t have Expanded Function Dental Auxiliaries (EFDA) or a similar role.


Returning to school for an EFDA certificate would have been a good opportunity for a step up in pay without much additional time and financial commitment. Sherri already has issues with her neck and joints–a result of years of providing care for her patients. Sherri keeps herself fit with physical activities both indoors and outdoors but those ailments need more time to rest which won’t happen if she is seeing back-to-back patients in a hygiene schedule.

I wish I could have been more optimistic when I told her what dental hygienists are experiencing in my part of the country.

“In Ohio alone, we have 12 dental hygiene programs that pump out about 225 graduates each year. There aren’t enough jobs to absorb that many dental hygienists regardless if it’s a full-time or part-time job.”

“Well,” she replied, “The director said there’s about a 95% employment rate after graduation.”

“Do you mean employed as a hygienist or at any job?”

“I assumed it meant in dental hygiene, but come to think of it, she did back pedal a little bit and say that figure included part-time positions.”


I added it probably also included being willing to work as a substitute until a permanent job opens up. Being a substitute has its advantages but it may not be consistent enough work to pay the bills in Sherri’s case. Many hygienists are being sent home early or told to come in later to start seeing patients because their schedule fell apart. It’s also not unusual now for hygienists to get a phone call telling them not to come in at all when they were counting on having a full day’s pay.


I cautioned her not to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans for tuition, instruments, and equipment. I don’t think she’ll have enough of a career to get a good return on investment. I know age is just a number, and if she were 20-30 years younger, I would have said to go for it.

I recommended Sherri look into finding a full time dental assisting position where she could cross train. I know many offices value an employee who can step in to help out wherever needed like at the front desk, in the lab, or as a hygiene assistant.


Because she is willing to return to school, I suggested she take business or computer courses. She’s had some tough years recently, why exacerbate her stress levels by the demands of the dental hygiene program? Those who have been through it understand.

It seems the news articles of dental hygiene being a great field to get into without needing a degree are simply being recirculated. They cite the same misleading information over and over again.

Because of the glut of RDHs who are looking for employment, the wages have remained static and in many parts of the US, are coming down. The law of supply and demand has proven itself true. Those who remain in the field are having to be subsidized by other income streams such as a small business. Which isn’t a bad idea, if for nothing else, to have the tax write-offs.

From what I know of my friend, I think she would benefit most by building on the foundation she already has and then maximizing that role through personal development and continuing education courses. I think she would be spreading herself too thin without the hope of recouping on her investment of time and money. She already has the assets she needs to grow her employment portfolio. I think she should run with that.


Would you have given her the same advice?

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