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How To In Healthcare Part II: The Undergraduate Options

Written by  Rich Ellis

Part I of OurHealth magazine’s four-part series — "How to 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 appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of OurHealth magazine’s Richmond edition and 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 a healthcare profession and how to achieve success as an undergrad.

Both clinical and nonclinical 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.

Students pursuing additional education after high school for a healthcare career can choose to earn a certificate, diploma, associate degree or bachelor’s degree. Each opens the door to employment in a number of healthcare careers. 

  • Certificates: Certificate programs — primarily offered at community colleges or technical schools — provide professional training in a specific field or occupation, such as certified nursing assistant, dental assistant or home health aide. Certifications can usually be earned in 12 months or less.
  • Diplomas: Diplomas are similar to certificates, but diploma programs are more in-depth and require hands-on experience gained on the job. It usually takes one to two years to earn a diploma. Available career choices for diploma holders include medical assistant, nursing assistant and pharmacy technician.
  • 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 serves as the first two years. Healthcare careers that require an associate degree include dental hygienist, medical office manager and paramedic.
  • Bachelor’s degree: Bachelor’s degrees are awarded by four-year colleges and universities and are required for students pursuing additional education at the graduate level, such as medical school. Dieticians, athletic trainers and anesthesia technicians are healthcare professions that require a bachelor’s degree.


Bryant & Stratton College, with a campus in Richmond, is an example of an institution that offers students a variety of choices when it comes to their healthcare education and future careers.

Bryant & Stratton is certified by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to confer diplomas, associate and bachelor's degrees.

“In the area of healthcare, we offer a bachelor's degree in health services administration; an associate degree in health services administration, medical assisting, medical administrative assistant and medical reimbursement and coding; and diplomas in health services assistant and medical office assistant,” says Beth Murphy, Bryant & Stratton campus director.

A wide variety of career opportunities are available to students who successfully complete a healthcare-focused education. For example, students pursuing an associate degree in Bryant & Stratton’s nursing program could find themselves ready to begin work in their new career in less than two years by completing the 20-month associate degree program and sitting for the National Counsel Licensure Examination, a national exam required for nurses to be licensed.

And for students considering a career in nursing, the future has never looked brighter —much the same as it does for many healthcare careers.

“We have a shortage of nurses in Virginia and a shortage of nurse educators globally,” says Debi Erick, Bryant & Stratton College’s program director of nursing. “As a result, there are so many opportunities in nursing in Virginia, with some employers offering $5,000 and $10,000 sign-on bonuses to our nursing graduates. Career advancement in nursing comes through education, work experience and certification. Bryant & Stratton College offers all three, and we encourage our nursing graduates to continue their nursing education by attending graduate school.”

Community colleges can also be an attractive option for students pursuing healthcare-related degrees.

With campuses in Midlothian, Chester, and a Nursing Education Center in Richmond, John Tyler Community College, for example, offers options for students contemplating a healthcare career, including associate degrees in nursing, emergency medical services, and even funeral services.

“Students who are interested in nursing initially enroll in either the career studies certificate, allied health preparation, pre-nursing; or the associate of applied science degree, general studies, pre-BSN (bachelor of science in nursing),” explains Johanna Weiss, dean of mathematics, natural and health sciences at JTCC. “The career studies certificate is geared toward students who are taking the prerequisite courses and then plan to apply to the associate of applied science in nursing program at JTCC. Because the BSN is becoming the expectation for registered nurses, most of our students enroll in the pre-BSN program.”

More than 90 percent of JTCC graduates express an intention to continue their education by pursuing the BSN degree, Weiss notes.

Other healthcare-focused options at JTCC include an emergency medical services program, consisting of several different career studies certificates; the AAS in funeral services — one of only two funeral service programs in Virginia; premed-focused studies and more. With the variety of degrees and study tracks available, students can find that choosing the one that’s right for them can be just as challenging as selecting which school to attend.

Choosing the right school

Deciding on a school is a decision based on equal parts emotion and facts. The easy part of that decision might be whether the student is pursuing a certificate or diploma or has plans to attend graduate school — factors that can help narrow the pool before other factors are considered.

Bryant & Stratton’s Murphy believes the first step toward selecting a school is finding the right program of study.

“The area of healthcare is very broad,” says Murphy, “and it’s important that students explore the many options in the field. Students should look at an institution’s outcomes. Are the graduates getting jobs? Are the graduates passing the exams necessary for certification or licensure? Next, what company does the institution keep? What accreditations does it have and what employer partnerships exist? Finally, does the institution meet the student where they are? For example, at Bryant & Stratton College, we have a child-minding center because we know many of our students have children. We also offer day, evening and online classes because we know many of our students work.”

Some students 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 schools they’re considering, to seek guidance from the schools, and to factor this information into their decision-making process.

“Faculty can help undergrad students design their curriculum to help them to be in the best possible position for acceptance into a graduate program,” says Cecil Drain, dean of the School of Allied Health Professions at Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical College of Virginia campus. “By doing so, they will save time and money by only taking courses that will help them in the acceptance process. It is key that they get to know about the program and profession, as well as the faculty getting to know them.”

Drain thinks it is advantageous for students to earn their undergraduate degree at a school where graduate and professional programs also exist, the way they do at VCU.

Cost is another important consideration when it comes to choosing an undergraduate school, with in-state schools usually offering significant cost savings to students. Cost information is readily available on each school’s website.

Costs vary widely between community colleges and public and private institutions, says Weiss of JTCC. Community colleges offer affordable, high-quality programs that attract a large number of highly qualified applicants, many of whom are recent high school graduates or career switchers returning to school after many years away. At JTCC, students pursuing an associate degree through a three-year program would need 97 credits at $150 per credit for a total tuition bill of almost $15,000.

Oftentimes those tuition costs can be defrayed by financial aid — something students should research and consider. A breakdown of the different types of financial aid available to students appears in the sidebar, "Differences between scholarships, grants and student loans."

Differences between scholarships, grants and student loans

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 extracurricular activity. Scholarships can also be based on particular traits, like ancestral background or group affiliation.

Grants tend to be need-based and are available to students based on criterion such as family income. The federal and state governments are the primary sources of grants. One of the most well-known federal grants is the Pell Grant. State-funded grants ordinarily go to students pursuing an education in their home state.

Student loans, borrowed by the student or parent, can be subsidized or unsubsidized, but both types need to be repaid. A subsidized loan does not accrue interest until the student ends his or her education, by graduating or withdrawing. Repayment begins about six months later. An unsubsidized loan begins to accrue interest as soon as the loan is disbursed and also must be repaid starting six months after graduation.

Both grants and scholarships usually have some sort of requirements, such as maintaining a certain GPA, in order for students to continue to receive funding. It’s important that recipients understand these requirements so they do not find themselves without the aid they expected.

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 their communication with school faculty.

“A student must put the time in to study and apply knowledge. Many of our students are balancing family, jobs and school. Students need to carve out time outside of the classroom to study.” –– Beth Murphy, Bryant & Stratton College

“First, the student must be in the right program. Students who do not enjoy math are not going to like most of the healthcare programs,” Murphy advises. “Students also need to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. Whether they are formal opportunities, such as an internship experience or exam prep sessions, or informal opportunities, such as networking with instructors, there are so many opportunities for our students to improve, practice their craft, gain experience and develop support systems.”

At the same time, Erick says it’s important that Bryant & Stratton’s adult learners feel connected and respected in order to be successful in their higher education efforts and maintain the balance required by the different roles they assume.

“I always encourage our nursing students to become active in our National Student Nurses Association organization on campus,” Erick says. “This is a professional organization in which students get to interact with other nursing students from around the world.

“We also understand the need for our adult learners to continue earning a living and supporting their families while they attend our programs,” Erick adds. “To this end, we schedule classes in the daytime, evenings, weekends and online to offer the working adult flexibility in their school schedule. Our RN-BSN program, for example, can be completed entirely online if that’s what the working nurse needs."

In Drain’s opinion, the quality of program in eyes of graduates and in national rankings, the job opportunities that await them after graduation and the cost and opportunity for scholarships and financial aid are also important success factors.

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 then 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.

A healthcare student’s perspective

Natalie Farnen is a student at Bryant & Stratton College and will graduate in December with an associate degree in nursing. When it came time to choose a career, there were countless reasons behind her decision to study nursing, but perhaps the strongest reason was her mother.

“She recently retired as a nurse, and throughout her 30-plus years as a nurse and years of caring for my grandparents, I gained such meaningful insight into excellent bedside manner, patience, comfort and, most of all, compassion,” Farnen explains.

When it came time to choose an institution that would provide her with the education she needed to pursue a nursing career, Farnen had a head start: She had already earned a bachelor's degree in health science. After graduating with her associate degree in nursing, she plans to continue her education by obtaining a master's degree in nursing. Farnen was originally enrolled in a nursing program in California, but a job change that brought her husband to Virginia led to her searching for a school here.

“I already had an idea of what kind of college I wanted to be a part of,” Farnen offers. “I wanted a school that knew who I was as a person, and one that would help me achieve my career goals. Bryant & Stratton definitely hit those marks and created an atmosphere filled with positivity. I live in Norfolk, and my commute to school is about an hour and 45 minutes. I could have easily selected a school in my city, but none of those colleges supported what I was looking for.”

As she reflects on the time she’s spent at Bryant & Stratton and looks to the future, Farnen says her experience in the RN program has been very rewarding and memorable.

“There’s never a dull moment in nursing,” she says. “My fellow classmates are like my family — my sisters. From the countless hours of studying together and the many interesting clinical/simulation lab moments, we developed such a strong bond. My professors are incredibly educated, each with different specialties in nursing, and each is an amazing mentor to every nursing student here. My experience at Bryant & Stratton has been nothing but positive. The staff here always welcomes current and prospective students with warm smiles and always tries to find time to get to know you.”

Those mentors should serve Farnen well with her aspirations of becoming a pediatric nurse practitioner and a nurse educator.

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 magazine’s four-part series, "How to in Healthcare," examines the steps necessary to prepare for graduate school, on-the-job clinical training through a residency and/or fellowship training. Watch for Part III in the August/September edition.