Returning to School
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that between 2016 and 2026, the number of medical billing and coding professionals will grow by 14%. That amounts to over two million new jobs that new graduates need to fill. Each of the incoming technicians must complete a medical billing and coding program and pass a national exam. Many of these learners are nontraditional students who will be at least 23 years old when they begin the program, and they usually have more obligations than traditional college students.
Adults may choose to pursue a certificate or associate degree in medical billing and coding. Because these programs can take as few as four months to complete, students can begin a fulfilling and secure profession quickly. Medical receptionists and other support staff may choose these programs to further their careers.
Graduates from these programs can expect jobs with a median annual salary of $39,180. Working in the medical field can bring personal fulfillment and, given the growth of the industry, security as well. However, returning to school presents unique challenges. In this guide, prospective students learn what to expect, how to get the most out of their experiences, ways to pay for their education, and tips for being successful in this endeavor.
Benefits of Returning to School for Medical Billing and Coding
Billing and coding professionals can enter the field with varying levels of education, including a postsecondary certificate, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree. For students with little to no college experience, a certificate helps to quickly get a foot in the door. However, those with some college credit may benefit from moving up to the next level. For example, someone with a certificate can take additional courses to earn an associate degree. Likewise, an adult with an associate degree may apply those credits to a bachelor’s program.
A bachelor’s degree helps job applicants stand out from those with a certificate or associate degree. This distinction is especially helpful for people who transition from different careers. Furthermore, a four-year degree demonstrates a candidate’s willingness to see something through to completion. These applicants may find it easier to move into management positions as well. All of these factors show in the pay difference between health information technicians with associate and bachelor’s degrees. The American Association of Professional Coders (AAPC) found that health information professionals with associate degrees earn an average of over $50,000 per year, while their peers with bachelor’s degrees bring home over $54,000 annually.
Average Salaries for Medical Billers and Coders by Educational Attainment
Online Medical Billing and Coding Programs for Returning Students
The number of college students taking online courses is rising quickly, and many of these distance students are nontraditional. In fact, many medical billing and coding programs are entirely online to cater to adult degree candidates. After all, online courses offer the flexibility, convenience, and affordability that these learners need to succeed. Since most online courses are asynchronous, learners can watch lectures, complete homework, and take tests when it fits their schedules.
Online programs also offer the convenience of completing coursework from any location, with many allowing students to log in from their mobile devices. Students can watch lectures on the train to work, write discussion posts at coffee shops, and take tests in their pajamas after the kids fall asleep. Because there are no in-person components to many of these programs, learners don’t need to fit another commute into their schedules either. Finally, students may choose online learning because the tuition rates and other fees tend to be lower. This is especially true when students attend public schools that offer in-state tuition.
Transferring Credits as a Returning Student
Although policies vary by school and program, most colleges allow credit transfers from other accredited schools. Typically, general education courses transfer with more ease than specialized classes. Additionally, colleges within the same state that are accredited by the same institution typically accept credits from one another. A college algebra course from one public state school is likely to transfer to another public college in the same state. This system helps students with some college credit get ahead in their medical billing and coding programs.
Some college credits are more difficult to transfer. For example, some courses expire after five years. Medical billing and coding students may run into this issue for classes that relied on outdated technology or coding systems. Furthermore, most colleges do not accept credits from for-profit, nationally accredited schools. Courses taken at unaccredited institutions also have a slim chance of being accepted. This fact highlights the importance of choosing accredited colleges. When possible, students should choose in-state, regionally accredited schools.
Although transfers between public, in-state schools tend to be easiest, these are not the only credits that can apply toward a student’s medical billing and coding degree. Ultimately, the learner’s new institution is the authority on what it will and will not accept. Schools consider the course equivalency, level, and length when making this decision. If these three parts align, the college may accept the course.
Course Equivalency: Perhaps the most important factor in determining whether a class will transfer is the content of the course. It should cover the same content as at least one course in the student’s new program. If the previous class only covers part of the material from the course the student wishes to replace, the school is not likely to allow the transfer. For example, a previous passing grade in a course titled disease processes would not replace a class called disease processes and surgical procedures.
Course Level: Many schools divide their courses by lower and upper levels. As such, courses can only replace requirements that are from the same level. Often, the level is indicated in the course number. Class numbers that start with a one or two are lower level, and those that start with a three or four are upper level. For instance, a passing score in mathematics 201 would not replace the requirement for mathematics 301.
Quarter vs. Semester Transfers: Although most schools use the semester scheduling system for courses, others split the year into quarters. Students may run into some issues when transferring coursework between the two formats. Many institutions use formulas to address these situations.
College Credit for Work Experience
Students without transferrable credits can still get ahead of the game, as many schools award credit for what students learn outside of the classroom as well. Learners can gain credit for training through the military, professional experiences, and independent study. Just like with transferable classes, the outside experience must cover the same material as the course in question. For example, someone who worked in the medical industry may use that experience to replace a medical terminology course. Likewise, a student coming from a different industry may test out of core courses like composition or mathematics. Both scenarios are possible because schools use many methods to conduct prior learning assessments (PLAs).
Methods of Assessing Prior Learning
The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) dictates how schools use PLAs. The CAEL allows institutions to use standardized testing, challenge exams, individual assessments, and training evaluations. Students can learn about each of these assessment methods below.
- Standardized Exams: The College Level Exam Program (CLEP) and the DSST Examination Program are the two tests that medical billing and coding students are most likely to use for their PLAs. These tests cover the same material across the country, so students can often transfer results between institutions. CLEP and DSST exams typically cover common classes, such as English, mathematics, and history. Because the exams cost significantly less than the courses they replace, this can save students time and money on core classes.
- Challenge Exams: When there is no standard test for a class, students can still prove their knowledge on an exam designed by the faculty that teaches the class, called a challenge exam. If the learner passes, they do not have to take the course. Like with standardized exams, this option can save students lots of money and time that they would otherwise spend on redundant training.
- Individual Assessments: When a test cannot adequately assess a student’s past, the school can conduct an individual assessment. In this scenario, faculty and staff look at the degree candidate’s work history, college experience, and non-college training. They then determine what skills the student already has and find the courses these skills correspond with. This method may be especially helpful for applicants with plenty of medical experience.
- Evaluation of Non-college Education and Training: Rather than inspecting a student’s full background, the school may reach out to The National College Credit Recommendation Service or the American Council on Education to assess any non-college training the learner completed. These organizations review what the program teaches and determine if it matches the material in any courses.
How PLA Credits Transfer
Before students select programs, they should carefully investigate how PLA transfers work. Schools have different ways of handling the credits that learners earn this way. For example, some institutions simply remove the course from the student’s list of requirements. This choice means that the credit will not affect GPA or transfer to other institutions. However, other schools give students credit as if they took the course.
Paying for School as a Returning Student
Paying for further education can be daunting at first glance, but returning students have plenty of opportunities for scholarships, loans, and grants. The first step to receiving this aid is completing the FAFSA form.
Filling Out the FAFSA as a Nontraditional Student
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a federal form that the Department of Education issues. It opens on October 1 for the following academic year. A completed FAFSA form is the prerequisite for most financial aid awards, including federal loans and some scholarships, so students should complete the application as soon as they know what school they are attending.
The FAFSA is free to complete. Applicants can choose to use the online process or print a copy of the form to mail. Applicants must be a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen. The basic requirements are that the student has a Social Security number, is registered for selective service (for men only), and is enrolled in at least half-time courses while maintaining acceptable academic standing. There are no age limits on the FAFSA; however, a students’ tax dependent status may affect how they complete the form.
Generally, the FAFSA process is the same for nontraditional and traditional students. Each student must provide identifying information and income documents. The government uses these figures and information from the school to determine how much attendance will cost, the amount that the student can pay toward those costs, and the learner’s financial need. Organizations that award financial assistance use these figures to calculate how much to give recipients. Filing a FAFSA form only takes a few minutes if the student possesses the right documents.
What Information Do I Need to Provide for the FAFSA?
Social Security Number: Unless a student is from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, or the Republic of Palau, the Department of Education requires a Social Security number on the FAFSA form. This requirement also applies to DACA recipients. Learners without this identification can apply for certain state and nonprofit aid instead.
Driver’s License Number: For further identification, the FAFSA asks for driver’s license numbers, but applicants without a license can leave this section blank without a problem. Those who have driver’s licenses should carefully input their information, because incorrect entries can result in delays or rejections.
Federal Tax Information: Applicants must accurately enter the information from the previous year’s tax return. These figures help the Department of Education determine how much aid each student needs. Students who are dependents on their parents’ taxes enter the information from that return. Since most nontraditional students are not dependents, they should use their own returns.
Records of Untaxed Income: Income sources like child support and veterans benefits do not appear on tax returns. However, the FAFSA requires students to add this income as well. Learners should add all income that they did not file with their taxes here.
Information on Assets: The final piece of financial information that the government requires to determine financial need is each student’s assets. Applicants should add up cash, bank accounts, investments, and real estate for this portion of the form. However, they do not need to add the home in which they live.
How to Determine Your Financial Need
The Department of Education takes the aforementioned information and comes up with two key figures: the cost of attendance (COA) and estimated family contribution (EFC). The Higher Learning Institution and the Department of Education determine the COA ahead of time. This formula considers tuition rates, books, fees, and room and board. Students who need disability services or childcare in order to attend school have higher COAs to compensate.
The education department uses the student’s income information to determine the EFC. This figure represents the amount of money the government expects a learner and their family to pay toward the COA. This is not a random figure; the department follows a strict formula to make this determination. Degree candidates subtract their EFCs from COAs to discover their financial need. The result of this simple calculation is how much need-based aid the student can receive. Need-based programs include the federal Pell Grant, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), direct subsidized loans, federal Perkins Loan, and federal work-study. After maxing out need-based programs, learners can apply for non-need-based aid, such as the direct unsubsidized loan program or a federal PLUS Loan.
Types of Financial Aid for Returning Students
- Scholarships: Scholarships are the most prized type of financial aid because students do not need to repay the awarding organization. Furthermore, there are plenty of scholarships for every type of student.
- Grants: Like scholarships, students never have to repay the money they receive from grants. However, there are fewer grants available, making them more competitive.
- Federal Loans: Students who need to borrow money to pay for school should use federal loans first. These loans usually come with lower interest rates than private loans and have no repayment requirement while students are in school.
- Private Loans: The last resort for students seeking financial aid should be private loans. While these loans have higher interest rates, they can also help learners advance their careers.
- School Aid: Higher learning institutions often award scholarships to talented students and those in need. They may also help learners with loans and grants.
- Federal Aid: The federal government issues need-based and non-need-based loans that many students use to pay for college. They also have grants for qualifying students.
- State Financial Aid: Each state has its own financial aid system, which may include loans, grants, and scholarships. Some state aid does not require the FAFSA.
- Privately Funded Scholarships: Companies and nonprofit organizations may award scholarships based on merit, need, or a combination of those factors.
Scholarships and Grants for Adult and Mid-Career Students
AHIMA Foundation Merit Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Successful applicants must be enrolled in a health information technology program and have AHIMA membership.
Amount: $1,000 to $1,500
HIMSS Foundation Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Applicants must be currently enrolled in an accredited program related to the health information or management systems field and be members of HIMSS.
Amount: Up to $5,000
ASAHP Scholarship of Excellence Award
Who Can Apply: The ASAHP requires applicants to be members of the organization and enrolled in any allied health program, including medical billing and coding.
AHIMA Veterans Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Applicants for this scholarship must be U.S. veterans, AHIMA members, and currently enrolled in a health information program.
Amount: $1,000 to $1,500
Alexandria Technical and Community College Medical Coding Specialist Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Medical billing and coding students at this college are welcome to apply for this scholarship program.
Georgia Health Information Management Association
Who Can Apply: This scholarship is for Georgia residents who are enrolled in CAHIIM-accredited programs.
Tips for a Successful Return to School
Some students find that returning to school as a nontraditional student can be difficult. However, students can do a lot in the way of preparation to make it easier. Below are some helpful tips.
- Brush Up on Tech Skills: Students who enroll in online classes should be sure that they have working computers that they know how to use. Furthermore, these learners should brush up on any programs that the courses require, including word processing software.
- Find Support Network: As with many challenges in life, a great support system can make all the difference when an adult returns to school. Students should ask friends and family to help whenever necessary. Furthermore, learners should prepare loved ones for seeing less of them and reassure them that it is only temporary.
- Choose a Flexible Program: Flexibility is vital for busy, nontraditional students. Asynchronous courses and distance learning help learners schedule around their busy lives. When selecting programs, applicants should be sure to prioritize convenience.