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How To In Healthcare Series Part II: The Undergraduate Years

Written by  Rich Ellis

OurHealth Southwest Virginia magazine’s four-part healthcare education series is a step-by-step guide for those interested in pursuing a career in medicine.  

Part I of OurHealth Southwest Virginia 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 looks at how students and their families can evaluate and choose the right undergraduate school to best prepare them for their healthcare specialty, 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. Registered nurses, dental hygienists, medical office managers, and paramedics are some of the healthcare careers requiring an associate degree.

Jefferson College of Health Sciences offers a broad range of healthcare-related undergraduate and graduate degrees – from an associate degrees to doctoral degrees – that can open up a world of career opportunities for graduates. Judith McKeon is Jefferson College’s director of the Health Sciences Office of Admissions and provided several examples.

At the associate degree level for example, McKeon explains that students could pursue a career after graduation as an occupational therapy or physical therapist assistant and be qualified to work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, school systems, outpatient clinics, home health agencies, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, mental health agencies, and community agencies. Similarly, students could choose the surgical technology path through which graduates can become members of a medical practitioner team providing surgical care to patients in a variety of surgical settings.

Community colleges are also an attractive option for many students pursuing healthcare-related degrees.

Virginia Western Community College (VWCC), for example, offers Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degrees and certificates that prepare students for healthcare careers, including several that are somewhat unique to the school, explains Dr. Elizabeth Wilmer, vice president of academic and student affairs at VWCC. AAS degrees offered at VWCC that aren’t often found at community colleges include dental hygiene, radiation oncology, and medical laboratory technology, as well as certificates in biotechnology, MRI, and phlebotomy.

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.

Roanoke College is one example of a four-year college that offers several different bachelor’s degrees in arts, science, and business administration. Dr. Brenda Poggendorf, the vice president for enrollment and the dean of admissions and financial aid at Roanoke College, explains that certain academic tracks related to science and health are popular with students pursuing healthcare-related degrees and careers.

“While many liberal arts majors may lead to acceptance in health-related fields, the most common majors or programs relating to healthcare are biology, biochemistry, chemistry, athletic training, health and exercise science, health and physical education, neuroscience, health care administration and health care delivery,” – Dr. Brenda Poggendorf, Roanoke College.

“Students from these majors often continue their education in professional programs, such as medical, dental, pharmacy, veterinary school, physical therapy and athletic training,” Poggendorf says.

McKeon states that a wide variety of career opportunities are available to Jefferson College of Health Sciences students who pursue a bachelor’s degree. Students in the college’s Emergency Services program, for example, could prepare for a career as a paramedic, or choose to use their education as preparation for graduate education through medical school or physician assistant programs. A number of other bachelor’s degree programs are also available at Jefferson College of Health Sciences, including Biomedical Sciences, Healthcare Management, and Respiratory Therapy.

For students continuing on with graduate education, Jefferson College of Health Sciences’s master’s programs include Healthcare Administration, Nursing, Occupational Therapy, and Physician Assistant.

How to choose the right school

Choosing a school is a decision based on both feelings and facts. The easy part of that decision is whether the student is pursuing a certificate or diploma, or has plans to attend graduate school. Once the pool of potential schools has been narrowed based on degree type and area of study, other factors come into play.

McKeon recommends that students take advantage of the wealth of information that’s available about all institutions via the internet as an excellent first step in learning about those schools, followed by a physical visit to the campus.

“Visiting is the best way to know about the school and gather the academic information needed.” – Judith McKeon, Jefferson College of Health Sciences.

“Planning should include other issues, such as travel needs, personal preference on how close to home is best, the availability of student support services – both academic and social – housing, sports, and cultural options,” McKeon adds.

Some students may already know that graduate school is part of their education plan even before they enroll in an undergraduate program. For these students, it may be beneficial to determine what the path to graduate school looks like to the undergraduate school they’re considering, and factor this information into their decision-making process.

“Many students know they want to attend professional or graduate school after college,” Roanoke College’s Dr. Poggendorf says. “If that is a possibility, it is wise to find out what that path looks like. How many graduates go directly to graduate school after college graduation? How many pursue graduate degrees after working for a year or two? How does the college prepare them for graduate programs?

Dr. Poggendorf continues: “Part of the reason Roanoke College students are successful in attending health profession programs after Roanoke College is their involvement in a program called Health Professions Advising Group (HPAG),” she explains. “This program, faculty and staff help undergraduates prepare for admission requirements to graduate schools. They focus on entrance exams and mock interviews, ensuring that students have the right blend of appropriate courses and experiences, and identifying appropriate professional school options.”

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. 
On VWCC’s website, for example, costs are easy to determine by program. A two-year program that culminates with the student earning a certificate and becoming a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) costs $7,696 for tuition and fees and $3,784 for books and supplies.

“Tuition is currently $157.09* per credit,” VWCC’s Wilmer explains. “Cost varies by the number of credits in the program and is available on our website under the ‘Gainful Employment Disclosures’ link.”
*Amount based on in-state tuition. Rates are subject to change.

Students should also consider and research the various types of financial aid options available to help defray some of their costs. Using VWCC and their LPN program as an example, their website lists $2,500 in Federal Loans as available to help finance the education. Potential sources of financial aid include scholarships, grants, and student loans.

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

  • Scholarships: Scholarships are usually merit based. This means that 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 life balance if they’re working while enrolled, the grades they achieve, and communication with school faculty.

“Successful students are ‘explorers.’ They are naturally curious.” –– Dr. Brenda Poggendorf, Roanoke College.

“Rather than limiting themselves to think about academic areas or professions with which they are familiar upon entering college, they are open to the suggestions of professors who get to know them – their interests and their strengths – and they allow their paths to expand before choosing from among the many opportunities available to them,” explains Dr. Poggendorf.

Dr. Poggendorf also says successful students are also strong time managers and know how to get the most out of a day by balancing academic work with campus involvement and perhaps leadership roles. They also supplement their classroom experiences with “real-life” applications such as research, internships, study away or abroad, creative works and service to others.

VWCC’s Dr. Wilmer outlines four areas she believes are most important when it comes to influencing student success: 

  • Make connections with anyone on campus including faculty, staff, and other students. Research shows that having connections is the number one indicator of retention and success.
  • Create a support system that includes family, friends, faculty, other students, and campus resources.
  • Research and utilize financial resources, such as personal resources, financial aid, scholarships, grants, and loans to cover the cost of the education.
  • Develop learning skills, an undertaking that can be enhanced through VWCC’s required Student Development class or by using campus learning resources, such as mentoring programs, tutoring, walk-in assistance centers, or working directly with faculty.
  • Students who find academic success by completing their designated course of study – whether it’s earning a certificate, diploma, associate degree or bachelor’s degree – and beginning a healthcare career shouldn’t assume that their education is over. Often students will return to school to further their career opportunities by earning an advanced degree. For many, this 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 are 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 are 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 Southwest Virginia 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!


Expert Contributors:
~ Judith McKeon, director of admissions at Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke.
~ Brenda Poggendorf, PhD, vice president for enrollment and the dean of admissions and financial aid at Roanoke College in Salem.
~ Elizabeth Wilmer, PhD, vice president of academic and student affairs at Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke.