Deciding Between a Medical Assistant Degree vs. Certificate

Medical assisting is a great career where you can earn a decent salary while helping others. It is also a great springboard into more advanced healthcare careers and provides great job stability. There are several different ways to become a high-level medical assistant. 

While you can become a medical assistant without a certificate or degree, most employers prefer to hire certified medical assistants. You can earn about a 10% higher salary by obtaining your certification, as well as having more opportunities for advancement. 

Being certified is what will make you more employable as a medical assistant. A medical assistant degree will include certification in addition to the degree you earn. You’ll need to decide if you want to earn just the certificate or go for a degree, too.

There are several factors to consider when choosing a medical assisting degree vs certificate. This guide will go over the differences between the two so you can choose the right option for you. 

Medical Assistant Degree vs Certificate Overview

Only Washington requires medical assistants to be certified before they can start working. Other than that, the only requirement for medical assistants is that they have their high school diploma or GED.

Medical assistant degrees are almost never required by employers or states. You can become certified through a certificate program in as little as 6 weeks, while a degree will take several years to obtain. 

Degree programs are also significantly more expensive than certificate programs. 

Medical Assistant Degree Medical Assistant Certificate
Type of Program Associate degree Certificate program
Where Program Is University, Community College, Online Community College, In-person Certificate programs, Online, Trade   Schools
Length of Time 2 years 8 weeks to 9 months
Cost $6,000 to $40,000 $2,000 to $10,000
Types of Classes Online, in-person Online, in-person
Clinical Experience Externships typically included Externship may be included
Salary $37,190 per year $37,190 per year
Job Outlook 16% growth through 2030 16% growth through 2030   

What is a Medical Assistant Degree?

A medical assistant degree is an associate degree that covers general education courses as well as medical assisting courses. Medical assisting courses might include, Anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, medication administration, clinical procedures, and medical terminology. 

Medical assistant degree programs are usually offered by universities and community colleges. They usually take about two years to complete (60 credit hours).

You can expect to pay anywhere from $6,000 up to $40,000 for your medical assisting degree, depending on where you choose to go to school. 

When you complete a medical assisting degree program, you’ll graduate with an associate degree in medical assisting and be ready to take a medical assisting certification exam. This is the same exam that you will take if you complete a certificate program. A medical assistant degree and a medical assistant certificate program result in the same certifications. 

When you have your medical assistant degree, you will be eligible for the same jobs as someone with just a certificate. You may be able to ask for a slightly higher salary with a degree, but the most important thing is that you earn your certification. 

If you plan to pursue higher education or a more advanced degree, make sure you choose a program with transferable credits, otherwise, you may find yourself starting over completely.  

What is a Medical Assistant Certificate?

A medical assistant certificate shows that you have been trained in medical assisting and have the knowledge and competency to care for patients safely. There are many different types of medical assistant certificates, including CMA, CCMA, and RMA. Each of these certifications has slightly different requirements, but they are viewed similarly by most employers. 

Medical assistant certificate programs focus on medical assisting knowledge and you will not have to complete general education courses like history or writing. They are usually offered by technical colleges, trade schools, and online programs. You can complete a certificate program in as little as 6 weeks through an accelerated program, and you should plan to pay between $2,000 and $10,000. Most of the cheapest medical assistant programs are certificate programs.

For example, Stepful has an online medical assistant training program that costs $1,999 and takes four months to complete. It has a 100% job placement guarantee and includes an externship.

When you complete your certificate program, you will be eligible to take your certification exam. Certification exams offered to certificate program graduates are the same as those offered to associate degree graduates. 

Earning a certificate will help you get a job more easily than candidates who choose not to complete their certification. Certified medical assistants also earn about 10% more than medical assistants who are not certified. 

Comparing Medical Assistant Degrees & Certificates

There are many educational options available for people seeking to become medical assistants. Although they lead to similar outcomes, associate degree programs differ from certificate programs. 

Program Length

An associate degree program usually requires you to complete about 60 credits. This means that a full-time student would take 2 years to complete their program. Some self-paced options can be completed more quickly, and if you choose part-time, it could take up to 4 years. 

A certificate program can be completed in as little as 6 weeks, but most take around 4 to 6 months. Longer programs can take up to one year to complete. Many programs can be completed online to help accommodate work and caregiving schedules. 

>> Learn more: Is Medical Assistant School Hard?

Program Cost

Associate degree program costs vary significantly depending on your choice of school. Out-of-state tuition for some colleges can be tens of thousands of dollars per semester. Local community colleges tend to be much more affordable, and you may be able to complete your medical assisting degree for as little as $6,000. 

Certificate programs are almost always more affordable than associate degree programs. Some online programs cost as little as $2,000. 

You can apply for financial aid and scholarships for both associate degree programs and certificate programs. 

>> Learn more: Medical Assistant Scholarship Options

Employers’ Perception

When you start looking for a medical assisting job, you might notice that very few employers require or even list a degree as a preferred qualification. However, when resumes are compared side-by-side, a degree might make you slightly more competitive. 

Most employers will not increase the salary for someone with a degree compared to someone without a degree, as long as both employees are certified. However, medical assistants with a degree are more likely to be promoted to jobs like office manager or trainer for new employees. 

Degree graduates may also have an easier time becoming medical assistant educators, if that’s something that interests you. 

Externship Availability

Medical assistant externship programs are similar to degree programs and certificate programs. Accredited degree programs and accredited certificate programs almost always include externship hours. 

An externship provides an opportunity for you to put your skills into practice while working with an experienced medical assistant in a real office or clinic. 

No matter which type of education you choose, you will get a much better learning experience if some kind of clinical hours or externship program is included. 

Included Classes

Most of the extra time it takes to complete a degree program is due to the general education courses required. Associate degree programs will require you to complete general education courses in addition to your medical assisting courses. This includes courses like English, basic math, and social sciences. 

Certificate programs focus only on the medical assisting portion of education. You can begin a certificate program after high school graduation or obtain a GED. This ensures that you have the basic knowledge and skills to get started. 

Stepful’s medical assistant training program, for example, includes healthcare systems, medical assistant terminology, anatomy and physiology, infection control, phlebotomy, EKG, and more.

Job Opportunities

Job opportunities are similar for both medical assistant degree and certificate holders.

Most medical assistants work in doctors offices, clinics, and outpatient centers. Medical assistants can choose to specialize in areas such as cardiology, dermatology, pediatrics, OB-GYN, cardiology, or podiatry. Some medical assistants prefer to find work that focuses on the clinical side of medical assisting, and others choose to focus on administrative work. 

>> Learn More: Medical Assistant vs. Administrative Medical Assistant

The job outlook for medical assistants is much better than the national average. Medical assistants are in high demand all over the country, and the need continues to grow as the United States population ages. 

Also, the national average salary for medical assistants is $37,190, which comes out to $17.88 per hour. Both medical assistant certificate holders and degree holders can expect a salary around this number.

Should I Get a Medical Assistant Degree or Certificate?

When choosing which kind of medical assistant education is right for you, consider cost, program length, and resulting credentials. Most people find that a certificate program will meet their educational needs at a more affordable rate and shorter time commitment. 

A few employers may prefer to hire medical assistants with degrees. For these employers, it is worth asking if they offer tuition reimbursement programs or advancement opportunities for medical assistants who hold a degree. 

If you plan to continue in the medical field and would like to earn a more advanced degree, you may want to pursue an associate degree. However, look closely at the credits and find out whether they are transferable. 

Since there are not any bridge programs from medical assisting to other healthcare professions, you may find yourself repeating similar courses or adding several years to your more advanced healthcare degree. 

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