Associate Degree in Healthcare Administration: Education and Careers
A functioning healthcare system is proving to be vital in more ways than we might’ve ever imagined before COVID-19. The industry could very well be key to bringing the economy back from the brink as it provides one of the few sectors where plenty of jobs are waiting for anybody willing and able to get the training to fill them. And on the heels of the pandemic of 2020, there’s a lot of people doing exactly that.
Healthcare will expand faster than any other industry in the next decade, adding more than 2.4 millions positions every year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For years, the industry has been gearing up to deal with the healthcare issues that come from a rapidly aging population, and—surprise!—people still are not getting any younger. At the same time, revolutionary new technologies and treatments are expanding our ability to address chronic issues in elderly populations, everything from medical exoskeletons to improve stability and mobility to nanotech-based skin regeneration.
If you think you are going to understand nanotech with just a high school diploma under your belt, think again. For the dedicated administrators managing hospitals, clinics, departments, and healthcare companies during this time of rapid expansion and transition, a college education is more critical than ever. And starting down your path with an associate degree in health administration or health management is a very viable and affordable way to get into the field.
What is an Associate Degree in Healthcare Administration?
An associate degree in healthcare administration delivers the foundational knowledge needed to provide administrative support in any healthcare setting – clinics, hospitals, insurance offices, dental practices, even pharmacies and companies on the backend of healthcare involved in manufacturing and distributing medical supplies and technology.
An associate degree prepares you for entry-level jobs in just two-years…
The last time you called to schedule an appointment with your doctor, you were probably chatting with a scheduler who held an associate degree. The assistant who greeted you when you arrived, took your vitals, and answered your questions on the way to the exam room probably learned how to do all that in an associate program. And, behind the scenes, the person who coded and processed your bill, the one who transcribed the doctor’s report, and the one who updated your electronic medical record – they all probably graduated from two-year programs.
Two-year associate degree programs deliver a broad general education in all the subjects required for those types of basic roles, covering topics like communication and sociology, healthcare policies and laws, human anatomy and physiology, along with teaching medical software skills.
An associate degree lays the foundation for higher degrees and career advancement…
Not only does an associate degree prepare you for entry-level work in the field as soon as you graduate, but it has the added bonus of typically being able to satisfy the first two years of a four-year undergraduate program, putting you on the doorstep to a bachelor’s degree if you’re going that route. And for anybody going into healthcare administration, that’s very likely part of the plan since the ticket to advancing to the more prestigious and higher paying roles in the field is a bachelor’s or higher degree.
Healthcare administration is a field where the experience you get from all types of administrative and clinical work is highly valued. Coming in at the higher ranks of healthcare leadership without first having paid your dues by working with patients, or handling billing and inventory and other tasks related to medical office management, would put you at a real disadvantage. You need the practical knowledge that comes from working in lower level positions before going into leadership, and it won’t be easy to earn the respect of your staff if you haven’t earned your stripes in the trenches first.
This makes health administration a field where it just makes sense to start at a lower level position with an associate degree and work your way up. For that reason, the degrees in the field, and the career ladder itself, is structured to accommodate step-by-step advancement.
Schools offer a few options for earning that associates, including on-campus, online, and hybrid options that combine the two styles to give you the best of both worlds.
Accreditation and Transferability Considerations For Associate Degrees in Healthcare Administration
Accreditation is not something that most students in the American college system have to worry too much about. That’s not to say it isn’t an important consideration, it’s just that the overwhelming majority of schools are very serious about academic rigor and providing the kind of education and subsequent credentials that are respected out in the word and reflect well on the institution. And even aside from wanting to maintain the integrity and reputation of the institution, it’s something that’s necessary for long term survival in the higher education game. No school will stay in business long without being fully accredited by a reputable organization.
If you’ve ever wondered why American colleges are so widely respected worldwide, it’s largely because almost every university or community college in the country has been evaluated by one of the regional accrediting bodies that establish academic excellence for the schools offering degrees in their region. When it comes to associate degrees and higher, that means holding accreditation from one of these six organizations:
You can find out more about who’s who in the world of accreditation by checking out the organizations that vet the accreditors themselves, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education.
At the associate level, accreditation is also important when it comes to the transferability of the credits you’ve earned to a bachelor’s program down the road. Simply put, to go on to earn your bachelor’s at an accredited school, you need your transfer degree to be from an accredited school too.
Accreditation is not the only factor for transferability. Often times, regional or state university systems have specific transfer agreements with nearby community colleges that govern what credits will or will not automatically transfer. Now this certainly doesn’t mean your credits won’t transfer if there doesn’t happen to be a formal agreement in place with a local four-year school, but when those agreements are there it can really streamline the process. In a lot of cases, four-year schools literally design their bachelor’s curriculum to line up directly with associate degrees offered in related fields at local two-year schools. This is common in a field like health administration where the bar for entry to the high-status, high-paying careers is a bachelor’s or higher.
If you are even thinking about eventually getting a bachelor’s in the field, you can save yourself a lot of headaches by ensuring that your associate program will be accepted by the universities you’re likely to transfer to. This is something worth paying particular attention to when earning your degree online through an out-of-state school, since they may not have a relationship with campus-based universities in the area.
You can easily find all the information you need on accreditation and transfer agreements on school websites. It’s a common question, so the information is usually readily available.
Associate in Healthcare Administration Degree Types and Concentrations
You’ll find three types of associate degrees in healthcare administration, and it’s worth taking the time to understand the differences among them before you commit to one. You can choose to pursue an Associate of Arts (A.A.), Associate of Science (A.S.), or an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) in healthcare administration.
If you’re interested in a well-rounded education…
Consider an Associate of Arts since it will deliver a full spectrum of general education courses, along with some liberal arts, and humanities courses. General education courses almost always include some blend of math, English and writing classes. Depending on your degree plan, the liberal arts and humanities courses could include everything from a foreign language that could make you an indispensable asset to your employer… to art history classes that make you more worldly… or even intro to psychology classes that make you better adept at relating to people in different situations.
The credits earned in an AA program are generally very easy to transfer to four-year programs since they replicate the liberal arts requirements those bachelor’s degrees include.
If you’re more interested in the scientific and technical side of health administration…
Consider an Associate of Science since it places more focus on math, science, and other technical coursework. Ever took a math or chemistry class in high school and wondered when you’re ever going to need these skills in the real world? Well, if you’re going into health administration, you’ll find the answer to that question real quick. This is a field where everything from complex billing and reimbursement processes to having a basic understanding of pharmaceutical constituents and dosages is part of the job.
This kind of hard science education comes at the expense of some liberal arts courses, but it will ensure you’re well-prepared for all the technical stuff that comes your way in an entry-level position.
If you want to enter the workforce right away and don’t plan to earn a higher degree later…
Consider an Associate of Applied Sciences, which is more of a goal in itself than a stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree. A.A.S. degrees rarely transfer into full undergraduate programs, but they are considered the best preparation to hit the ground running in an entry-level healthcare administration job.
You’ll likely come across associate degrees with different titles that may still focus on very similar coursework. For example, degrees like these often mirror the curriculum and topics found in a healthcare administration degree program:
Although an AAS won’t set you up for the more conventional method of career advancement by earning successively higher degrees, you can certainly still advance if that’s all you have by drawing on experience, work ethic and ambition.
Associate in Healthcare Administration Degree Program: Requirements and Courses
Even at the associate level, healthcare education is constantly evolving to meet the demands of the field as they change with demographics and technology. Any respectable college or university puts a lot of effort into reviewing and evolving the curriculum to keep up with the latest developments in healthcare technology and administration, while at the same time working to stay attuned to the local community and the needs of students entering their programs.
What it Takes to Get Into an Associate Degree Program
Before you start diving into any of these subjects, though, you need to get the application process out of the way.
Although it can seem like a lot of paperwork to come up with and a ton of qualifications to meet, inclusiveness is the name of the game with associate level programs. Since they provide an entry-level education to prepare students for entry-level jobs, the bar you have to jump to get in is pretty easy to clear. No matter what school you plan to attend, you’ll need to meet some variation of these requirements:
Requirements for online healthcare administration degree programs won’t be any different. You just need a stable, reasonably high-speed Internet connection, though many programs offer apps and web-based interfaces that don’t put a huge demand on band-width, so it doesn’t exactly require anything on the level of fiber optic or even cable connectivity. If you’re able to stream video and use Zoom with your current internet set-up, you’re in business.
Courses in Healthcare Administration Associate Degree Programs
Reputable schools will make sure their course catalogs feature the most current electives and required courses that align with the most recent trends in the industry. But you’ll always find the broader subjects lining up with fundamentals like these, even as the finer points of what the courses cover continues to evolve:
Working with patients experiencing all the stress that comes with health issues and the cost of treatment makes for some tricky conversations to navigate for everyone in the industry, even for those working on the administrative side. Empathy and understanding go a long way, but with stakes and costs so high, there is bound to be friction, and courses in conflict resolution explore ways to help you manage patient disputes constructively and gently.
Healthcare Customer Service
At the end of the day, for any healthcare practice to continue offering quality care, it has to be solvent and profitable. And any business in a competitive marketplace where people have plenty of options is only as good as the customer service it provides. This is as true in healthcare as anywhere else, and as an administrator, a lot of that will land on you to take care of. That’s why it’s important to learn about the factors that influence customer and patient perception, including patient psychology, diversity in customer service, listening skills, and effective communication techniques.
Policy extends from the legislative level where law-makers hash out the regulations they believe are best for their communities and constituents, right on down to the facility level where administrators and executives determine how to stay in compliance with those laws while balancing accessibility and profitability. You’ll explore the healthcare policy-making process, including how policy influences health care costs and population health, and how governance and regulation impact your role as a healthcare administration professional.
At the end of the day, administration is about managing the staffing, inventory, budgetary, regulatory compliance and workflow needs of the healthcare facility. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of the importance of management as it relates to decision-making, planning, strategy, organizing, staffing, leadership, and change management, and consider the ethical impacts of the decisions you make.
Medical Law and Ethics
In a lot of ways medical ethics may be somewhat intuitive, but the law isn’t written around intuition, it’s the result of generations-long discussions and precedent that evolves with changing times. As a healthcare facility manager, it’s fundamental that you have a good understanding of HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), as well as the basics when it comes to court processes, and ethical issues including fraud, abuse, privacy, and confidentiality as it relates to healthcare.
Communication is of paramount importance in the field of health administration, and you can’t communicate effectively with staff and leadership if you don’t know the language of medicine. Even at the associate level, you’ll get a chance to become familiar with the industry-specific terms you’ll encounter every day, including their roots in Greek and Latin.
Courses in English, history, social studies, and math complement your other training and build the core education that will help you move up to a bachelor’s degree if you ever decide to transfer to a four-year program.
Over the approximately two years you spend earning your degree, you will complete about 60 credits in general education classes, healthcare theory courses, and practical skill coursework. This usually involves about 20 courses in total, split up into quarters or semesters. Most will be considered required courses in healthcare administration, but a few will also be electives that you can use to tune your degree more specifically to the kind of work you want to do in the field.
Although you’ll find online, hybrid, and in-person degree programs all follow this general model in terms of total credit requirements, different schools and programs offer a great deal of flexibility and diversity in how you can meet those requirements. Part-time programs will take longer to complete, but allow you to schedule your classes around real-world commitments to work or family. On the other hand, some students may be able to finish more quickly if they have completed prior coursework or take heavier course loads.
Admissions advisors and counselors are there to help you figure out the best path for your personal needs, so don’t be afraid to reach out before or during your enrollment for assistance.
What it Costs to Earn an Associate in Healthcare Administration
The cost of an associate degree in healthcare administration can depend a lot on the location and school you choose. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average annual tuition cost in 2019 at a public community college was $3,700, making a two-year program $7,400, excluding the cost of books, housing, and everything else. For the same year, private institutions charged between $15,000 and $18,400 per year, for a total ranging between $30,000 and $36,800 for two-year programs.
But there are often ways to keep your costs down. Some programs offer lower rates to in-state residents, active military service members or veterans, first responders, and others. Some programs—though not all—offer tuition discounts for online-only programs. And, of course, online programs offer you the option of living in a low-cost area, regardless of where your college is physically located, which can bring massive savings in some states.
The cost of going to college isn’t just measured in in tuition and cost-of-living, however. You’ll have expenses related to course materials, like books and labs, and most colleges have an array of additional fees that are charged on top of tuition for things like technology access, campus services, and transportation. Admissions counselors can give you the complete picture of what to expect for a full understanding of the costs and fees associated with your degree.
Pros and Cons of Online Degrees
The world of education has been moving more and more toward online programs for years, and that has only accelerated and become more broadly accepted due to the pandemic of 2020.
Healthcare related curriculum can be tricky to deliver effectively when it’s entirely online, but this isn’t so much the case when you’re studying the administrative side of the field where very little in the way of hands-on learning is required. Still, hybrid formats can be a great option for getting the best of both the online and on-campus experience, with most courses delivered remotely, but a handful that just work better in-person still being conducted on campus.
Either way, it’s a big choice to commit to, and you will need to weight\ the pros and cons carefully from your personal perspective before making your choice.
Online courses offer some very clear benefits:
Despite their popularity, entirely online programs still aren’t for everyone. There may be a few reasons you decide to commit to a traditional, on-campus degree instead:
What Jobs Can I Get with an Associate Degree in Healthcare Administration?
Healthcare is a vast field, with the American Board of Medical Specialties listing 24 constituent boards representing 40 specialties and 87 subspecialties among them. Each of those offers a different challenge in healthcare administration, which itself branches off into all sorts of non-medical specializations, from payroll to information technology to logistics.
A healthcare administration associate degree can launch you into any of those career paths. At the same time, a two-year degree will limit you to entry-level positions, and put a cap on your earning potential even with advancement.
Below are some of the most common jobs you might find after graduation, with the most relevant degree or training required:
Medical Administrative Assistant (or Medical Assistant)
Handles a combination of clinical and administrative tasks in hospitals, clinics, or other healthcare facilities. This is a position that involves a lot of facetime with patients and other staff.
Transcriptionists type up reports, records, and other documentation from preliminary recordings made by clinicians. It’s an independent position without much interaction with patients or other staff.
May handle front-desk or other administrative duties, including scheduling, record-keeping, billing, and other correspondence.
Medical Records and Health Information Technician
Maintains medical records and the systems used to manage them, generating reports or retrieving information as well as ensuring security and complete record-keeping.
Salary Expectations for Associate-Level Healthcare Administration Jobs
There are many more specific jobs within and around those major categories. Each of them has a different set of salary expectations, depending on demand and the kind of expertise you have to develop to perform the tasks.
Robert Half’s 2020 Administrative Salary Guide has a complete section on administrative healthcare positions, including expected salary ranges for a number of them that you can get into with an associate degree:
- Credentialing specialist
- Median – $38,750
- More Experienced – $45,000
- Most Experienced – $54,000
- Patient Intake Clerk
- Median – $31,750
- More Experienced – $36,350
- Most Experienced – $46,000
- Medical Scheduler
- Median – $32,000
- More Experienced – $36,750
- Most Experienced – $47,000
- Patient Services Representative
- Median – $35,350
- More Experienced – $40,750
- Most Experienced – $51,750
You’ll also find that compensation can swing a lot depending on what area of the country you are in. Although folks need medical care everywhere, major cities and more affluent parts of the country where the cost-of-living is higher tend to have higher pay ranges for a given position. Naturally, local labor market factors can also influence rates; a 2018 investigation by MDLinx, for example, found that physician compensation tended to be highest in states with the least competition. Similar circumstances can elevate pay in administrative roles.
Ranges are shown here to highlight the regional differences in pay rates for associate-level positions (2020 Robert Half Salary Guide):
New York : $49,526 – $75,870
Los Angeles : $46,530 – $71,280
Chicago : $43,710 – $66,960
Dallas : $39,128 – $59,940
Miami : $37,365 – $57,240
Saint Louis : $35,426 – $54,270
Atlanta : $37,365 – $57,240
Seattle : $44,768 – $68,580
Patient Intake Clerk
New York : $39,691 – $65,332
Los Angeles : $37,290 – $61,380
Chicago : $35,030 – $57,660
Dallas : $31,358 – $51,615
Miami : $29,945 – $49,290
Saint Louis : $28,391 – $46,732
Atlanta : $29,945 – $49,290
Seattle : $35,878 – $59,055
New York : $40,394 – $66,738
Los Angeles : $37,950 – $62,700
Chicago : $35,650 – $58,900
Dallas : $31,913 – $52,725
Miami : $33,655 – $54,855
Saint Louis : $28,894 – $47,737
Atlanta : $30,475 – $50,350
Seattle : $36,512 – $60,325
Patient Services Representative
New York : $44,609 – $72,709
Los Angeles : $41,910 – $68,310
Chicago : $39,370 – $64,170
Dallas : $35,242 – $57,443
Miami : $33,655 – $54,855
Saint Louis : $31,909 – $52,009
Atlanta : $33,655 – $54,855
Seattle : $40,322 – $65,722
Healthcare Associate Degrees in Your State
Use this table to navigate the healthcare programs, average costs, and average salary in your state.
HEALTH ADMINISTRATION SCHOOLS
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
Career Advancement: Starting with an Associate Degree and Working Your Way to the Top
You can build a complete career in healthcare administration with just an associate degree, but it also offers you a pathway to bigger and better things if you choose to pursue them. An associate degree in healthcare administration can lay the groundwork for earning a full four-year degree, a master’s, or even a doctorate some day!
Bachelor’s in Healthcare Administration
A bachelor’s degree is really the standard minimum for roles in mid-level management and the type of leadership positions that would give you a chance to really be influential in your organization. And the beauty of it is, you can come back to earn your bachelor’s at any point in your career, bringing all that hard won experience and knowledge with you.
With the two-years it would take to earn a bachelor’s after transferring in from an associate program, you’ll build business skills and a deeper understanding of human resource management, organizational leadership, operations management, and the nuts and bolts of business finance. A bachelor’s degree is the kind of Swiss Army knife education that can open up doors to almost any area in health services management, from a mid-level role in a major private hospital taking up a few city blocks of the most expensive real estate in a major metro, to a full-charge leadership position for a community clinic out in the suburbs.
Master’s Degrees and MBAs in Healthcare Administration
Earning an MHA (Master of Health Administration) or MBA with a focus in Healthcare Administration is the ticket to one of those high-level, high-dollar positions in upper level management and executive leadership – the kinds of jobs that put you in charge of departments or even entire hospitals and healthcare systems. The curriculum is business-heavy at the graduate level since these degrees are designed to prepare you for the kinds of rolls where you’re going to be spending a lot more time upstairs in corporate offices and board rooms, far removed from where direct patient care is administered. But even after you get to this level, you’ll be amazed at how valuable the experience you gained working closer to the clinic floor will be since every decision you make affects both patients and staff.
With just another two years of study after earning your bachelor’s, a master’s will allow you to further specialize in the business side of healthcare, opening doors to positions beyond hospital administration, giving you a shot at positions in government developing and advocating for health policy initiatives, as well as big-money jobs in the pharmaceutical and medical technology sectors.
Doctorate Degrees in Healthcare Administration
Doctorates in health administration are available with an academic and research focus, just as you would expect from any PhD, as well as with a more boots-on-the ground practical focus, as is the case with the DHA (Doctorate of Healthcare Administration).
If you plan to pursue a professorship or academic research position, then a PhD gives you exactly the kind of preparation you need, focusing in on things like research methodology and statistical analysis for the highest level understanding of the theory and mechanics of health administration. But if you’re more interested in keeping your career focused on the business of healthcare in a position that would allow you to shape and influence the way patient care is delivered from the inside, then the DHA is what you’re after. With a DHA there is virtually nowhere to go but the highest levels of executive leadership in healthcare delivery, pharmaceutics and medical technology development and sales. It’s a big commitment to mastering domains like business finance, economics, and organizational analysis, but it also gives you access to the most prestigious and lucrative positions in the field.