Associate Or Diploma?

While there are no educational requirements per se for becoming a medical assistant (MA), most MAs choose to attend specialized MA training programs to learn the skills necessary for excelling at their chosen careers.

Two educational avenues are open to you as an aspiring MA: one-year diploma programs and two-year associate degree programs.

Which one is better? That depends upon your specific needs. One-year programs may be better for people who want to get out into the workplace and begin earning as soon as possible.

Two-year programs may be better for people who view becoming an MA as the first stage in a health care delivery career.

It’s important to remember, however, that MA training is not as portable as comparable training for nurses. Fewer opportunities are available to transfer credits and use the education you already have as a launch pad for other occupations.

Educational requirements

The only nonnegotiable educational requirement for becoming an MA is a high school diploma. Fewer employers are offering on-the-job MA training these days, though.

Over 90 percent of MAs pursue formal training. Formal training is particularly important for MAs who want to work in a clinical capacity.

Diploma Programs: The typical MA training program takes between nine months and one year to complete. Vocational institutions, community colleges and online education providers offer these programs.

They are designed to provide you with the skills to hit the ground running with an entry-level MA job and to pass a national certification exam if that’s also your goal.

Diploma programs are generally structured as six months of classroom training followed by six months of clinical laboratory experience and an internship/externship.

Although you will earn a diploma at the end of your studies, you earn no college credit when you pursue this path.

Another option is a two-year training program that leads to an associate degree.

Associate’s Degree of Applied Science (AAS): An AAS in Medical Assisting focuses primarily on teaching you the skills you will need when you work in the office of a physician or other health care practitioner.

The curriculum includes classroom and clinical teaching, but the classroom teaching is specifically focused on job skills you will need.

While you will earn an associate degree, should you decide to continue your education at a future date most of your vocational and technical classes will not transfer over to a four-year degree.

General education classes will transfer over though. Vocational/technical schools and online education providers tend to deemphasize general education classes, so if you entertain any thoughts at all about pursuing future career goals, you’d be better off pursuing your AAS at a community college or junior college.

Associate of Science (AS): An AS in Medical Assisting augments clinical training with classroom theory. Not only will you learn how to take a blood pressure reading, you will also learn the difference between systolic and diastolic pressures, and what those numerical readings signify in clinical terms.

The AS degree is specifically designed for students who think they may continue their education at a four-year college or university at some point.

Medical assisting coursework covers both the clinical and administrative aspects of medical assisting, with subjects like anatomy, physiology, medical terminology, typing, transcription and insurance processing

Comparative costs of education

The cost of MA training programs is highly variable, depending upon where you pursue your training. One-year MA training programs are less expensive than two-year programs, and community colleges and junior colleges are less expensive than vocational/technical schools and online education providers.

The cost of a one-year MA training program at a community college may range anywhere from approximately $2,500 for state residents to $10,000 for out-of-state residents.

The cost of a two-year associate degree program at a community college may range anywhere from $5,400 a year for state residents to $20,000 for out-of-state residents.

The costs of vocational/technical MA training also vary greatly, but many vocational schools offer half off tuition during periodic enrollment drives. Online MA training also shows a great deal of variation in cost.

You will qualify for Federal financial aid at most community and junior colleges, as well as some vocational and online schools. Federal financial aid includes PELL grants, Stafford loans and PLUS loans.

How difficult is the MA training program?

MA training is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. For some people, the coursework may seem easy, while for others it will seem very difficult indeed.

The curriculum’s difficulty will depend upon how much familiarity you already have with the subject matter, as well as how many competing demands you have on your time.

Most students do not find the medical assisting curriculum as difficult as a nursing curriculum. If you are interested in a health care delivery career but are unsure whether you have the academic aptitude for it, MA training is a good way to test the waters.

How much time do you need to devote to MA training a daily basis?

You’ll put in more class-related time in a one-year program than a two-year program, since the same amount of practical information must be compressed into a one-year format.

With a two-year program, you will spend between 8 and 12 hours a week in the classroom, depending upon how many classes you take.

Depending upon the types of laboratory training your program offers, you may spend between 5 and 20 hours a week in a clinical setting.

Homework is another variable. It is possible to obtain an MA diploma without doing much homework. However, you are sabotaging yourself if you don’t pay attention to homework, since homework assignments are designed to give you a better understanding of the tasks you will be tackling as an MA.

Students who complete between 5 and 15 hours of homework can graduate with higher grades and are better prepared for certification examinations.

Salaries and employment prospects

Physicians want to work with MAs who demonstrate excellent administrative and clinical skills that will help a medical practice run more efficiently.

There is no evidence that employers favor MAs with associate degrees over diploma-trained MAs. However, employers will differentiate between prospective employees who have no formal training and those who’ve completed an MA training course.

While as recently as a decade ago, many employers were willing to train MAs on the job, today’s faster paced health care delivery systems require employees who can hit the ground running.

Trained MAs function more efficiently. In some instances, MA training is actually a requirement of the State Medical Board or their liability insurance carrier, since trained MAs also make fewer mistakes.

Employers are also increasingly showing preference for MAs who pursue professional certification. Credentialing indicates that a prospective employee has been vetted by an outside organization with high standards.

Approximately 90 percent of all MAs possess at least one of the following certifications:

  • CMA (Certified Medical Assistant): American Association of Medical Assistants
  • RMA (Registered Medical Assistant): American Medical Technologists
  • CCMA (Certified Clinical Medical Assistant): National Healthcareer Association)
  • NCMA (National Certified Medical Assistant): National Center For Competency Training


Although technically a medical assisting career doesn’t require any formal education, employers have a marked preference for MAs who have graduated from a specialized MA training program. 

For the most part, however, employees don’t show a preference for MAs who graduate from two-year associate degree programs over MAs who graduate from one-year diploma programs.

The respective advantages of associate degrees and diplomas really depend upon the direction you see your life going in.

If you’re looking for an interesting job with a comfortable paycheck and regular hours that will allow you to spend time with your family and loved ones as well as pursue your numerous other interests, then an MA diploma program will fit your needs well. In a year, you’ll be ready to take on your first assignment!

If, on the other hand, you’re thinking that medical assisting might be the start of a career in health care delivery, either as a nurse or in some other specialty, then you’ll be better off with an associate degree from a community or junior college. An associate degree will allow you to apply the MA course you’ve already taken toward additional career goals.

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