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When I Grow Up, I’m Going to Work in Healthcare: Part II: The Undergraduate Options

Written by  Rich Ellis

Part I of OurHealth Lynchburg and Southside magazine’s four-part series—“When I Grow Up, I’m Going to Work in Healthcare: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pursuing a Career in Medicine” – examined how students can begin preparing for a healthcare career as early as high school. 

It that article, we focused on building a foundation for success and making high school curriculum count.

Part II in our series looks at how students and their families can evaluate and choose the right undergraduate school to best prepare them for their healthcare specialty of choice, and how to achieve success as an undergrad.  

Both clinical and non-clinical healthcare career paths offer a myriad of choices when it comes to deciding what type of healthcare professional a student wants to become. That career decision in turn dictates a specific undergraduate path and its associated educational requirements.

What’s a certificate?
Students pursuing higher education after high school for a healthcare career can choose to earn a certificate, diploma, associate degree or bachelor’s degree. (See sidebar for additional information about healthcare and healthcare-related programs). Each opens the door to employment in any one of a number of healthcare careers. For example, a certificate—primarily offered at community colleges or technical schools and taking 12 months or less to complete—provides professional training in a specific field or occupation, such as a certified nursing assistant, dental assistant or home health aide.

What’s a diploma?
A diploma is similar to a certificate program but covers the material more in-depth and requires one to two years to complete, along with hands-on experience gained on the job. Available career choices for diploma holders include medical assistant, nursing assistant, and pharmacy technician, to name just a few.

What’s an associate degree?
An associate degree is a two-year degree offered primarily by community colleges and technical schools, but also by some four-year colleges and universities. This degree is often transferable to a four-year bachelor’s degree program, and may serve as the first two years of the four-year degree program. Registered nurses (RN), dental hygienists, medical office managers and paramedics are some of the healthcare careers requiring an associate degree.

Community colleges are an attractive option for attainting an associate degree and should be considered by many students pursuing healthcare-related degrees. Central Virginia Community College’s (CVCC) healthcare-focused programs are designed for students who want to go directly into the job market after graduation, explains Dr. James Lemons, dean of Business and Allied Health at CVCC.

“Our allied health programs here are classified as career technical education programs,” Dr. Lemons says. “There are four programs in the allied health area, including EMS/Paramedic, Medical Laboratory Technology, Radiologic Technology, and Respiratory Therapy Technology – all of which lead to a two-year associate degree. Their core objective is to get someone employed immediately.”

Those four programs will also transfer to a four-year bachelor’s degree program in Healthcare Management at the University of Virginia (UVA), Lemons adds, through an articulation agreement that CVCC has with the University. And while at UVA, students can continue to work while completing their degree because the entire program is offered online.

What’s a bachelor’s degree?
Bachelor’s degrees are awarded by four-year colleges and universities and required for students pursuing additional education at the graduate level, such as medical school. Dieticians, athletic trainers, and anesthesia technicians are all examples of healthcare professions that require a bachelor’s degree.

The fields of study, classes offered and programs available are often as unique as the college or university itself. Liberty University is just one example of an institution offering students a variety of undergraduate and graduate degree choices related to healthcare education and careers.

Dr. Ralph Linstra is the dean of the School of Health Sciences at Liberty University and explains that the university has a wide selection of fully accredited programs. “In addition to the Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) and the Doctorate in Osteopathic Medicine (DO) graduate degrees, Liberty also offers bachelor’s degrees in athletic training, biology, chemistry, exercise science, and public health, as well as master’s degrees in biomedical science, exercise science and public health,” Dr. Linstra says. “There is also an associate degree in medical office assisting that is available exclusively through Liberty's online programs.”

Lynchburg College and its School of Health Sciences and Human Performance have a similarly broad offering of healthcare education choices. Within the School of Health Sciences there are six healthcare-focused programs, says Dr. Jenna Lloyd-Fitzgerald, director of the Nursing Program:

  • Nursing, both graduate and undergraduate
  • Health promotion
  • Exercise physiology
  • Sports management
  • Athletic training
  • Health and physical education

Lynchburg College also offers graduate degrees in the science of nursing, in physical therapy, and in a physician’s assistant program.

The types of career opportunities that await students upon graduation from Lynchburg College and other schools are as diverse as these fields of study and can include opportunities that some students may not have considered when evaluating healthcare-related careers, including working with insurance companies or OSHA guidelines, in sports management, or within the public school system in a health and physical education role.

For students searching for insight on the variety of careers available to them, Dr. Linstra recommends two books, “Introduction to the Health Professions” (Stanfield and Hui) and “The Health Professions: Trends and Opportunities in U.S. Health Care” (Chisolm).

“These resources are valuable,” he explains, “because they educate the reader about the diversity of the careers in terms of number of years of required education and training; descriptions of the day-to-day work duties; salary expectations; potential work environments; certification and licensure requirements; employment trends; and job prospects.”

With the variety of degrees and study tracks available, students may find that choosing the one that’s right for them can be just as challenging as selecting which school to attend.

How to choose the right school

Choosing a school is a decision based on both feelings and facts. The easy part of the decision may be whether the student is pursuing a career that requires a certificate or diploma, or if he or she has plans to attend graduate school. These factors can help narrow the pool before others are considered.

Dr. Linstra believes that research plays an important role in helping find the right school and program of study.

“Things to consider are not just price but quality of faculty and facilities, reputation, and practicality,” Dr. Linstra says. “Regarding practicality, for example, a student who wishes to be an RN can attend a two-year community college or a four-year college or university and achieve the same status of RN. Both programs prepare them for the national RN exam, but logically, the two-year program will be less expensive. However, a four-year BSN/RN degree is more likely to earn a higher salary than the two-year program.”

“The student and his/her family should research the best colleges and universities within their budget, and apply to more than one,” – Dr. Ralph Linstra, Liberty University

Some students may already have plans to attend graduate school even before they enroll in an undergraduate program. For these students, it’s beneficial to determine what the path to graduate school looks like at the undergraduate school they’re considering, to seek guidance from the school, and then factor this information into their decision-making process.

“If the health profession career of choice --- such as medicine, dentistry, physical therapy, etc., requires graduate level education in addition to a bachelor’s degree, the student and family need to assess the quality of the undergraduate science program,” Dr. Linstra says. “This can be done by asking for graduate school admission data from the science department chairman in addition to student scores on the national exams [e.g. MCAT, etc.] If a chairman hesitates to share this information or states it’s unavailable, the program is probably subpar and should be avoided.”

Dr. Lloyd-Fitzgerald says Lynchburg College is seeing more and more students entering school as undergraduates, already knowing they want to pursue a graduate degree later.

For these students, Dr. Lloyd-Fitzgerald says, “I think it’s important when you are considering a program for your undergrad degree to look at things such as, ‘Is the school accredited? Is the program accredited?’ Because if you’re looking to go on to earn a graduate degree and the [undergrad] programs aren’t accredited, that’s going to impact your ability to get into a graduate program.”

Using nursing as an example, she recommends students look at a school’s pass rates for their students sitting for national board exams and to talk with program directors to get an idea of student retention rates in the program.

“Schools focused on success can tell you this,” Lloyd-Fitzgerald says. “Also look at what that graduate program requires to make sure the school you are entering has the prerequisites for the actual graduate program you want.”

Financial considerations

Cost is also an important consideration when it comes to choosing an undergraduate school, with in-state schools offering a potential cost savings to students. Cost information for a particular school is readily available online at each institution’s website.

These costs can vary widely among community colleges and public and private institutions. Community colleges, for example, offer affordable, high-quality programs that attract a large number of exceptionally qualified applicants, many of whom are recent high school graduates or career switchers returning to school. At CVCC, Dr. Lemons says that students pursuing a two-year associate degree over four semesters will incur a total cost for tuition, books and associated fees of approximately $9,600*, with a cost breakdown per semester of $1,937 in tuition and fees and $478 in books.
*Amount based on in-state tuition. Rates are subject to change.

“Students are eligible for federal financial aid---such as Pell grants---and loans, and there are a number of scholarships that they can apply for,” he adds. These aid packages can help defray the cost of education. Students should research and consider the sources of financial aid available to them.

What are the differences between a scholarship, grant and student loan?

  • Scholarships: Scholarships are usually merit based. This means they are given to prospective recipients based on desired qualities such as athletic ability, academic achievement or involvement in a certain extra-curricular activity. Scholarships can also be based on particular traits like ancestral background or group affiliation.
  • Grants: Grants tend to be need-based and are available to students based on criteria such as family income. The federal and state governments are the primary sources of grants. One of the most commonly known federal grants is The Pell Grant. State-funded grants ordinarily go to students pursuing an education in his or her respective state.
  • Student Loans: A student loan (taken out by the student or parent) can be subsidized or unsubsidized and both must be repaid. A subsidized loan does not accrue interest until the student ends his or her education, by graduating or withdrawal. The re-payment begins about 6 months later. An unsubsidized loan begins to accrue interest as soon as the loan is disbursed and is to be repaid starting 6 months after graduation.
  • Both grants and scholarships usually have set requirements for the student to meet in order to continue to receive funding, such as maintaining a certain GPA. It’s important that recipients understand these requirements so that they do not find themselves without expected aid. [End pull out box]

Success factors

Many factors contribute to a student’s success in undergraduate school, including the course load they take, their school-work balance if they’re working while enrolled, the grades they achieve, and communication with school faculty.

“It’s important for students to understand that their education is a partnership with us.” –– Dr. Jenna Lloyd-Fitzgerald, Lynchburg College.

Dr. Lloyd-Fitzgerald says she wants students to know that getting organized and staying focused help lead to academic success.

“The culture here regarding student success is paramount – Lynchburg College does an amazing job at developing different programs to help facilitate student success and I think it’s important for students to engage in those programs,” she explains. “Teams of faculty, staff, and students are working on behalf of students, and from a student’s standpoint, they really have to engage in those activities and be a part of what’s going on in the classroom as well as in the community. Connections are important, and it’s important that students, when they come on campus, feel that connection to their peers, to the College and surround themselves with positive energy and people.”

At CVCC, Dr. Lemons says they help students succeed before they are even admitted to a program. That careful evaluation involves looking at a variety of factors:

  • high school GPA--particularly in math, chemistry, physics, biology, medical terminology (if applicable), and English
  • attendance record
  • writing sample or essay that demonstrates their knowledge of a particular field of interest
  • a self-appraisal
  • an interview
  • answers to questions related to their community involvement and leadership abilities

Students who achieve academic success by completing their designated course of study---whether it’s earning a certificate, diploma, associate degree or bachelor’s degree---and begin a healthcare career shouldn’t assume that their education is over. Healthcare professionals often return to school to further their career opportunities by earning an advanced degree, which for many means entering graduate or medical school.

Following is an overview of the types of healthcare and healthcare-related certificate, diplomas and degrees available to students after high school, including the general time to complete or graduate as a full time student.

Certificate Programs
Certificate programs offer professional training in a specific field. Most certificate programs take a year or less to complete, and are offered primarily at community or technical colleges or schools.

Diploma Programs
Diploma programs are similar to certificate programs, but are usually more in depth. Offered at community colleges or technical schools, diploma programs generally include a one to two-year program of course work and on-the-job-training. 

Associate Degree
An associate degree is two-year degree most commonly granted by a community college or technical school. They can, however, also be granted by four-year colleges and universities. These two-year programs may provide the necessary training to prepare students for entry-level positions in certain fields. An associate degree generally translates into the first two years of a bachelor degree, for those who choose to transfer into a four-program.

Bachelor Degree
A bachelor degree is a four-year degree that is granted by a college or university. Most schools that grant bachelor degrees require a specific course load and a minimum number of credits to graduate. A bachelor degree is required for admittance into a graduate program, medical or dental school.

There are a variety of healthcare positions available to those who are interested in pursuing a career in the field. Listed below are healthcare professions, both clinical and non-clinical that are available, broken down by their education and degree requirements.

Healthcare Positions that Require Non-Degree Certificates

The following is a list of healthcare positions that can be obtained through completion of a certificate program at a community college or technical/trade school.  Included is the job title and length of program.

  • Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA): four to twelve weeks
  • Dental Assistant: one year or less
  • Emergency Medical Technician (EMT): ten weeks
  • Home Health Aide: one year or less
  • Medical Coding Specialist: one year or less
  • Medical Administrative Assistant: eight months to one year
  • Medical Massage Therapist: one to two years
  • Medical Receptionist: one year or less
  • Patient Care Technician: eight months
  • Phlebotomist: one year or less
  • Surgical Technologist: one year

Healthcare Positions that Require Non-Degree Diplomas

The following is a list of healthcare positions that can be obtained through completion of a diploma program at a community college, technical/trade school or hospital. Included is the job title and length of program.

  • Cardiology Technologist: one to two years
  • Health Care Documentation Specialist: 10 months to two years
  • Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN): one to two years
  • Medical Assistant: nine months
  • Medical Office Professional: one to two years
  • Nursing Assistant: one to two years
  • Ophthalmic Medical Technician: three to six months
  • Pharmacy Technician: one to two years

Healthcare Positions that Require an Associate Degree

The following is a list of healthcare positions that require an associate degree through an accredited two-year college or trade school.

  • Dental Hygienist
  • Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
  • Dispensing Optician
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG) Technician
  • Histologist
  • Medical Laboratory Technician
  • Medical Office Manager
  • Medical Transcriptionist
  • Nuclear Medicine Technologist
  • Occupational Therapy Assistant
  • Paramedic
  • Physical Therapy Assistant
  • Radiation Therapist
  • Radiologic Technician
  • Registered Nurse (RN)
  • Respiratory Therapist
  • Surgical Technologist
  • Ultrasound Technician

Healthcare Positions that Require a Bachelor Degree

The following is a list of healthcare positions that require a four year bachelor degree at an accredited college or university.

  • Anesthesia Technician
  • Athletic Trainer
  • Certified Nursing Home Administrator
  • Dental Laboratory Technician
  • Dietician
  • Exercise Physiologist
  • Health Educator
  • Kinesiotherapist
  • Medical and Health Services Manager
  • Occupational Health and Safety Specialist
  • Recreational Therapist
  • Speech-Language Pathologist

Healthcare Positions that Require Advanced Education and Designations

The following is a list of healthcare positions that require a four-year bachelor degree in order to apply to a master degree program or go to a post graduate school, such as medical or dental school. These positions require advanced level degrees and can take up to ten years, depending on the position, degree, licensure or certification, internship and residency requirements.

  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)
  • Chiropractor (DC)
  • Doctor of Osteopathy (DO)
  • Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD)
  • Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS)
  • Doctor of Optometry (OD)
  • Doctor of Podiatric Medicine (DPM)
  • Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)
  • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
  • Medical Doctor (MD)
  • Mental Health Counselor
  • Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
  • Nurse Practitioner (NP)
  • Pharmacist (PharmD)
  • Physician Assistant (PA)

Next in our series

Part III of OurHealth Lynchburg and Southside magazine’s four-part series “When I Grow Up, I am Going to Work in Healthcare,” examines the steps necessary to prepare for graduate school, on-the-job clinical training through residency and/or fellowship training. Be on the lookout for Part III in the August/September 2016 edition!





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