Your Comprehensive Guide to What a Certificate or Associate Degree in Diagnostic Medical Sonography Could Be Worth
Diagnostic medical sonography is a profession with a storied history, and one that has evolved considerably over the past couple generations.
When the field first began to emerge in the 1960’s and 1970’s, it was largely seen as a technical role on the order of x-ray technicians and MRI technologists. But as it evolved, the more advanced technologies and imaging capabilities began to demand more highly trained experts, with interpretive skills to go along with the technical imaging know how. As the role established itself as more decidedly patient-focused than purely technical in nature, it broke away from the technician classification to become an entirely separate job category under the title – diagnostic medical sonography.
It was around this time that the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) and the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) began offering specialist certifications in the field to assess and award credentials denoting expertise in certain specific niches… certifications that have quickly become standard requirements for positions in the field.
One thing that doesn’t change, though, is that it’s going to cost some money to get the education you need to become a sonographer. Although a college degree is not expressly required to become a sonographer since a certificate program will do, as a practical matter it’s challenging to get into the field without a degree. In fact, most certificate programs in the field are actually designed as post-degree programs for healthcare professionals in technical and patient-focused roles who want to shift gears in their careers, or existing ultrasound techs looking to specialize in a particular organ system or part of the body.
Maybe you’re just heading into the field for the first time with an associate or bachelor’s degree, or one of the rarer pre-degree certificates. Maybe you’re a seasoned healthcare professional adding a post-degree certificate to your existing degree. In any case, you’ll no doubt want to know what kind of return you’ll get on your educational investment for the career you want.
It’s a simple concept…
Total Salary and Benefits Over the Course of Your Career
– Total Cost of Your Education and the Salary You Might’ve Earned Without It
Total Return On Your Education Investment
That means factoring in the salary bump you can get out of a sonography \ degree or certificate program, over and above whatever salary you could get without it, and taking out the cost of the education itself in order to find what your return is over time.
Because figuring out your ROI also includes opportunity costs, you have to carefully assess your local sonography job market to see what level of training will be more appropriate. If you can get a job easily with only an associate degree, it might make very little sense to pay for a bachelor’s program if you can expect the same salary… and have to wait another two years to get through that additional schooling before you start collecting it.
Determining The Cost of an Education in Diagnostic Medical Sonography… Then Maximizing ROI With Student Aid
A study on the average return on investment of 4,500 schools by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has done some of the heavy lifting for you in terms of figuring out the trends for returns on a college education. One of the most interesting findings in the study for sonographers is that, measured at ten years after enrollment, two-year community college programs tend to have the highest returns.
The picture starts to shift once you get to the 20 or 30 year mark, however, with 4-year degrees coming out on top as providing the biggest overall ROI. That reflects the broader education and better opportunities that a bachelor’s program offers you. As you start to put the experience and reputation you build for yourself on-the-job together with your education, a bachelor’s is more likely to put you in line for senior and managerial positions.
There is also the fact that standards in the field have trended toward more education, expertise and professionalism, not less. Already, the ARRT requires at least an associate degree for certification in any of their specializations, while the ARDMS has multiple paths to qualifying that all involve significant specialized education or the equivalent in professional experience.
As you look at the costs of your education, you’ll need to consider how long you plan to be in the industry and what your ultimate career goals may be to properly figure out your ROI. You’ll find all the information you need right here to be able to do exactly that.
Weighing the Pros and Costs of a Public Versus Private School Education
At every level of education, from associate and certificate programs to master’s degrees, you’ll find that there are both public and private school options for your training. As separate categories, you’ll also find out pretty quick that these can have very different costs associated with them.
Private schools are almost always more expensive in terms of tuition. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, on average that comes out to:
- Public 2-year school – $10,281
- Private 2-year school – $25,596
- Public 4-year school – $20,050
- Private 4-year school – $43,139
All of those degrees are going to have the same qualifications when it comes time for you to earn your certification as a diagnostic medical sonographer. So why would you ever pay more?
There’s a perceived gap in quality between private and public schools in some professions that explains much of the difference, though in healthcare, that’s typically truer for MDs than diagnostic medical sonographers. Although the merits and quality of a program are harder to determine, according to the Georgetown study, that perception seems to contribute to better long term career outcomes: the study shows that the 40-year ROI for those expensive private school degrees more than pays for itself.
That may be clearly true for physicians and in accounting or law or a dozen other professions where an Ivy League name on your resume can open doors and support salary bumps that more pedestrian degrees would never secure, but it’s not necessarily as true when it comes to highly technical and patient-focused professions like sonography. You’re more likely to find well-established medical schools and reputable vocational college programs with strong local healthcare system ties getting every bit as much respect as programs that cost four times as much.
How To Factor in Tuition Assistance When Determining Your Educational ROI
According to Forbes, as of 2020, some 45 million college students owed a combined $1.6 trillion in student loans.
Not surprisingly, individual student loan debt is higher for those who go to private school, with nearly 64 percent left owing money, whereas only half of graduates from four-year public schools have outstanding loans. That drops to just 20 percent of graduates from community colleges and other public two-year schools.
But with an average post-graduation debt of $33,900 (private) and $28,600 (public) for a bachelor’s degree … and $26,400 (private) and $16,600 (public) for an associate, that can be as much as $400 coming out of your paycheck every month.
That means you need to think hard about not just how much a school will cost for your sonography program, but how you will pay for it. Interest is a bear, so loans cost you quite a bit more than just the amount that is borrowed—although they are typically low-interest and have generous repayment terms, there is still anywhere from a three to six percent surcharge they will add to your total, making tuition that much more expensive.
A less expensive school that you can pay for out of pocket might have an even larger advantage over a pricey degree that puts you neck deep in debt.
The flip side of tuition assistance is the potential for getting grants or scholarships to help pay for your schooling. Unlike loans, these do not have to be paid back—so they work in exactly the opposite fashion, improving your ROI by reducing the total cost of your education. The average federal grant is over $4,000; a lot lower than the typical amount of loans taken out for tuition, but it can make a big dent in the cost of an already affordable program through a community college or state school. If you’re diligent in going after state grants and scholarships offered directly through your school, you could scrape together a total around four times the amount you get through federal grants alone.
Then there is the best of both worlds: loans that can be forgiven. As someone going into healthcare, you have a higher than normal chance of ending up working for a non-profit organization or even the government. In either case, you may qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, a federal initiative that allows outstanding student loan amounts to be forgiven for workers in some fields after they have made at least 120 payments on their direct loans. Although you still end up paying for some portion of your debt, you can write-off the amount forgiven in terms of your total return. But you do need to be sure your job will qualify for the program before you can start counting on this to improve your ROI.
How Much Does an Associate Degree or Post-Degree Certificate in Diagnostic Medical Sonography Cost?
Most entry-level sonographers will opt for the low-cost, one or two year associate degree program for getting an introductory education in sonography. It’s the most available option, with the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) recognizing nearly 230 associate degrees in diagnostic medical sonography. Post-degree certificate options for healthcare professionals looking to add credentials are also really common, with 124 recognized by CAAHEP.
Diploma programs that provide a short-path into the profession for non-degree holders are falling out of favor, with CAAHEP currently recognizing only about 25 of them throughout the Midwest. Although it’s still a viable option for getting into the field, it’s becoming such an uncommon path that for the purposes of this guide we’re considering an associate degree to be the minimum investment.
In many cases, you’ll find these kinds of programs offered at the very same schools, with the certificate program as a one-year to 18-month option that focuses exclusively on technical education in sonography, and the associate degree as a two-three year option that builds in some additional liberal arts and general studies classes.
The annual program costs are often identical between these two types of programs, with the certificate sometimes a little cheaper overall since there aren’t as many credits to complete.
As shown in the Department of Education’s College Scorecard tuition-tracking website, the costs of these programs can vary both regionally and between public and private schools. These are some representative examples from a number of states around the country, showing the total average cost of attendance annually, with the average amount of grants and scholarships from federal financial aid for students at those schools subtracted out to give you the most realistic and accurate sense of what you’ll actually be paying:
- Riverside City College – Riverside (public) – $6,033
- Glendale Career College – Glendale (private) – $34,879
- Traviss Technical College – Lakeland (public) – $7,520
- ATA Career Education – Spring Hill (private) – $20,409
- Albany Technical College – Albany (public) – $698
- Altierus Career College – Norcross (private) – $16,023
- Lewis and Clark Community College – Godfrey (public) – $5,404
- Midwestern Career College – Chicago (private) – $15,917
- Seward County Community College – Liberal (public) – $5,285
- Rasmussen College – Topeka (private) – $18,895
- New York
- Dutchess Community College – Poughkeepsie (public) – $8,123
- Saint Elizabeth College of Nursing – Utica (private) – $22,125
- Indiana County Technology Center – Indiana (public) – $14,613
- DLP Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center – Johnstown (private) – $20,006
- Northeast Texas Community College – Mount Pleasant (public) – $8,097
- The College of Health Care Professions – San Antonio (private) – $27,720
- Edmonds Community College – Edmonds (public) – $6,845
- Carrington College – Spokane (private) – $21,779
If it seems clear that the certificate option, where available, is the clear ROI winner at almost half the cost, you do have to consider that it will be on top of the degree you have already earned in another area.
Although a post-degree certificate will be the end of the line as far as college-level training for most who go that route, if you’re just getting started in the field with an associate degree, it could set you up for considerable cost savings even if you end up earning a bachelor’s later on. That’s because the right kind of associate degree can be used to cover the first half a four-year program as long as there is a transfer agreement in place between your community college and the four-year school you plan to attend.
But if you have already earned a bachelor’s degree in another field, and will be coming into sonography by earning a post-degree certificate to get the technical training you need, you’re looking at a much more expensive total investment in your education. That’s a sunk cost, however; you can’t get a refund even if you don’t plan to pursue the career that degree would normally lead to. So it might be best to look at your sonography investments separately when figuring out your ROI.
How Much Does a Bachelor’s in Diagnostic Medical Sonography Cost?
Getting the first half of your bachelor’s program covered at community college rates rather than full four-year university costs can be a big savings, if a bachelor’s degree is your ultimate goal.
The average annual cost of a public 4-year school is $20,500, while a 4-year public school is north of $27,000 a year. Go to a private 4-year school and those annual costs go up to $43,139 according to NCES.
If you’re shopping around, a community college can be half that price… a 50 percent discount on the first two years of a four-year education.
According to College Scorecard, this is what the annual cost of bachelor’s degree programs are at a few representative schools across the U.S.:
- California State University – Long Beach (public) – $8,982
- California Baptist University – Riverside (private) – $23,365
- Florida Gulf Coast University – Fort Myers (public) – $13,745
- Florida Southern College – Lakeland (private) – $26,036
- University of Georgia – Athens (public) – $13,971
- Emory University – Atlanta (private) – $24,593
- Illinois State University – Normal (public) – $21,301
- North Central College – Naperville (private) – $23,599
- Kansas State University – Manhattan (public) – $18,450
- Newman University – Wichita (private) – $13,417
- New York
- Stony Brook University – Stony Brook (public) – $14,893
- Ithaca College – Ithaca (private) – $33,164
- Temple University – Philadelphia (public) – $23,536
- Messiah University – Mechanicsburg (private) – $26,919
- University of Texas – Austin (public) – $16,505
- Texas Christian University – Fort Worth (private) – $37,513
- University of Washington – Seattle (public) – $12,001
- Seattle University – Seattle (private) – $34,947
Considering the ROI of a Master’s Program in Diagnostic Medical Imaging
Master’s programs in diagnostic medical imaging are not common, with CAAHEP recognizing just two schools that offer them. These programs, run to around $11,926 per year in public schools and $25,442 at private schools according to NCES.
There’s no clear career progression specific to sonography at the master’s level, however, so it’s very hard to estimate what your return might be. Degrees at this level typically qualify you for executive level positions, but those will typically take you outside of sonography specifically and into more general management roles. In those cases, a more general master’s program might also be a better choice. You’ll have to make the call based on your opportunities and goals.
Salary Levels for Diagnostic Medical Sonographers Ensure a Solid Return on Your Educational Investment
How much do you earn when you come out on the other end of your educational program? That’s the number you have to determine to fill in the compensation side of the ROI equation.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2019 median salary for Diagnostic Medical Sonographers was $75,780, or $36.44 per hour.
That’s just an average, of course. You have to factor in a few other realities when you are thinking about your total payoff in the profession.
Regional Differences in Sonography Salary
Where you work can make a big difference in what you make. Supply and demand, along with cost-of-living, result in significant regional differences in sonographer salaries. For the same states that we provided the tuition expenses above, for instance, you can expect median salary levels that look like this:
- California – $100,960
- Florida – $66,310
- Georgia – $60,750
- Illinois – $75,420
- Kansas – $76,670
- New York – $77,060
- Pennsylvania – $66,270
- Texas – $72,160
- Washington – $90,130
Industry of Employment Effects Salary Levels
You will also find compensation differences between different medical settings.
- Outpatient care centers – $89,880
- Hospitals – $74,440
- Doctor’s offices – $73,810
- Medical and diagnostic laboratories – $70,100
To some extent, these reflect different internal specializations in the field, although BLS does not specifically track those. The American Society of Echocardiography conducted a salary survey in 2010, however, that showed cardiovascular sonographers bringing in $34.05 per hour… almost the same as the 2019 median salary for sonographers overall, ten years earlier. It’s clear that some specializations can bring in higher pay than others, but you’ll have to do your homework in your area to find the most lucrative path.
Non-monetary Compensation and Tenure Affect Total ROI
You also need to factor in how long you will be working in the industry and the likely changes in your salary that will come as you accumulate experience and, possibly, become more specialized in your practice.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the top ten percent of sonographers brought in more than $102,060 in 2019.
That’s a benefit of experience, and, in some cases, better education… a bachelor’s degree is more likely to prepare you for managerial roles and more specialized positions in the industry.
You also need to think about compensation you receive over and above your salary. Benefits such as life insurance, health insurance, tuition and continuing education packages, and transportation cost coverage don’t wind up in your bank account directly, but they do keep you from having to cover those expenses out-of-pocket yourself. In the case of healthcare coverage, which is often quite generous for healthcare professionals, that can amount to anywhere from $5,000 to $30,000 in value per year according to Forbes.
In any case, diagnostic medical sonography is a hot field and salaries and demand in healthcare generally are only increasing. Your investment in a solid education is sure to pay dividends over time, as long as you carefully tailor your schooling to your career path in the field.
(Salary data reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2019 for diagnostic medical sonographers. Figures represent national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Information accessed Jan 2021.)