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What Kind of Degree Should a Medical Assistant Have?

NurseJournal Staff
Updated October 5, 2023
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Interested in becoming a medical assistant? Learn how completing an associate or certificate program can benefit your career, and which path is right for you.
Asian-American female medical assistant smiles while standing in front of a hospital reception desk.Credit: Erik Isakson / Getty Images

Are you thinking about working in healthcare, but not sure you want to spend the time and money to earn a nursing or medical degree? A medical assistant career might be the right choice for you.

Medical assistants rank among the nation’s fastest-growing healthcare occupations.

As the demand for preventive services expands, hospitals, outpatient facilities, clinics, and many other healthcare settings depend on medical assistants for important clinical, administrative, and technological duties.

You can enter the field by either earning a two-year medical assistant associate degree or a certificate program that takes a year or less to complete. Discover which pathway may be best for you.

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Medical Assistant Certificate vs. Associate Degree

High school graduates can become medical assistants after completing on-the-job training. However, a certificate or an associate degree may lead to greater employment opportunities.

Certificate and associate degree programs share some elements. Both options prepare you for similar administrative and clinical positions in a variety of healthcare facilities.

Both pathways include required courses in areas such as human anatomy, pharmacology, medical terminology, and office administration.

What differs is the cost and time needed to complete each program. A certificate offers the most affordable and quickest way to enter the field. Students often complete their certificate in one year or less.

An associate degree costs more because it requires two years and includes general education courses. However, many employers prefer to hire medical assistants with associate degrees.

Time to Complete

Most full-time students take two years to finish their associate degree at a community college or a four-year institution.

Many schools offer hybrid or online options. If you intend to study part time, you may need an additional semester or year to finish all graduation requirements. Most medical assistant associate degrees require 60 credits, including required clinical laboratories or internships.

Depending on the program, full-time students can finish in six months to a year. Most certificates require approximately 40 credits.

Fulfilling clinical experience requirements, while not a part of all certificate programs, may add to the time it takes to complete all requirements.

The educational pathway you choose depends on your goals. If you want to enter the workforce quickly and keep educational costs down, a certificate may be your best option. However, the broader training provided by an associate degree may lead to greater employment opportunities.

You may also transfer credits earned in an associate degree to four-year school if you later decide to earn a bachelor’s.


What do you study to become a medical assistant? While the course titles may differ, certificate and associate programs both expect students to master similar content.

If you enroll in an associate degree, the curriculum may include:

  • Human anatomy and physiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Medication administration
  • Lab techniques and procedures
  • Clinical procedures
  • Administrative procedures
  • Medical terminology

A medical assistant certificate may require:

  • Human anatomy and physiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Medication administration
  • Lab techniques and procedures
  • Medical recording and coding
  • Office practices
  • First aid

Associate degrees include clinical laboratories or internships as part of the requirements. These kinds of clinical experiences are not always required in certificate programs.

Certificates focus entirely on medical assisting topics while an associate degree also features a general education component beyond the professional content.

Students earning an associate degree must also complete courses in mathematics, natural and social sciences, writing, and the humanities. They may also transfer these credits to a bachelor’s degree program in a related field.

Where Each is Offered

Several different kinds of schools offer the training you need for a medical assistant career.

Community colleges and some four-year colleges and universities offer associate medical assistant degrees. Many of these programs have developed convenient distance learning programs.

Some associate degrees use a hybrid or blended format that combines web-based and in-person learning. Both campus-based and online learners must also complete a supervised clinical experience in a healthcare facility.

Certificate programs are available at vocational and technical schools and community colleges. They also offer flexible online options that make it easier for students to earn their degrees without attending classes on campus.

Online learning works well for students who must manage personal or work commitments along with their studies. If you need a more structured, hands-on environment, in-person programs may be the best fit.

Salary and Employment Outlook

The employment outlook for medical assistants is promising. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 16% increase in these jobs between 2021 and 2031, adding over 123,000 new positions.

Medical assistants earned a median annual wage of $37,190 in May 2021. This includes both certificate- and associate degree-holders.

Many top-paying employers prefer to hire medical assistants who completed a two-year associate program. If you have an associate degree, you can expect to find the best-paying positions in outpatient care centers, hospitals, and physicians’ offices.

You may earn a higher-than-average salary if you graduate from an associate program that lets you focus on a medical assistant specialty such as geriatrics, cardiology, oncology, or podiatry.

If you enter the field after earning your certificate, you will also find many administrative and clinical positions, but will likely earn less than associate medical assistant degree-holders. Certificate holders may not have the training to work in a specialized clinical field that often pays a higher salary.

The in-demand fields of medical billing and coding will need growing numbers of medical assistants regardless of their educational background. Your salary level will vary by your location, years of experience, and specialized credentials.

Certification Eligibility

Earning either a medical assistant associate degree or certificate accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) can prepare you for one of the major medical assisting certifications.

The Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) credential, offered through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), is the most widely recognized certification for medical assistants.

Other well-known certifications include the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA), the National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA), the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA), and the Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAM).

Earning one of these certifications can result in higher pay and increase your job prospects. Certified medical assistants stand out in a competitive market. This credential tells prospective employers that you have a higher level of skills and knowledge compared to those without certifications.

Which certification you choose depends on several factors. Make sure the state where you plan to work, and your prospective employer, recognize your intended certification.

While the CMA and RMA are the most well-known, you may want to choose a certification such as the CMAM if it focuses more on your career interests. Eligibility, application costs, and examination requirements differ for each certification.

How to Choose

Although you can begin a medical assistant career without any training beyond a high school diploma, you can broaden your job prospects by earning a certificate in a year or less.

A certificate lets you enter the job market quicker and costs less than an associate degree. These programs do not require additional courses outside the medical assisting field, letting you focus on preparing for your intended career.

On the other hand, those with certificates may not earn as much as associate degree-holders. With a certificate, you may not have the training to enter specialty medical practice or move ahead in your career. Many of the courses you take in a certificate program may not count as transferable college credits if you decide to continue your education at some point.

Taking the time to earn an associate degree makes you more competitive in the job market. You will acquire a broader set of skills in a two-year program, making you more desirable to prospective employers.

An associate degree helps you qualify for better-paid positions in specialty medicine and earn more opportunities for promotion. If you ever decide to continue your education in nursing or another healthcare field, you can easily transfer the college credits you earn in an associate program to a bachelor’s degree at a four-year school.

While associate degrees often cost more than certificates, many states offer tuition free community college scholarships, where you can earn association degrees for free.

In Summary

Both kinds of medical assisting programs can lead to rewarding careers in a rapidly expanding healthcare field. As you decide what type of pathway will help you achieve your career goals, consider:

  • Program length: A certificate program works best if you need to enter the job market quickly. Earning an associate degree takes longer but may result in better job opportunities and a higher salary.
  • Cost: An associate degree may cost more than a certificate but may lead to a higher starting salary.
  • Educational requirements: In a certificate program, you only take courses that provide the fundamental skills needed to become a medical assistant. An associate degree includes similar classes, along with general education courses that provide broader knowledge in subjects like writing and math.
  • Employer preference: Both certificate and associate programs prepare you for many clinical and administrative jobs. However, some healthcare providers regard graduates with associate degrees as better qualified. Medical assistant associate degree graduates are more likely to get better-paying jobs with specialty medical practices.
  • Employment opportunities: No matter which educational pathway you choose, consider getting a certification such as the CMA or RMA to increase your earnings and marketability.

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Page last reviewed January 11, 2023

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