A college degree requirement for paramedics: Is it just B.S.?

For me, the most important negative to the idea is whether there are reasonable career enhancements available to those providers

Recently, I had the pleasure to participate in an EMS Garage podcast. The group considered whether paramedics should ultimately be required to have at least an Associates Degree, or more ideally to some, a Bachelor's Degree. As our national politicians are fond of saying, "we had a spirited discussion…"

Insightful arguments were made by my erudite colleagues on the podcast. They discussed what the potential benefits could likely be for patients and EMS if paramedics had to earn a two- or four-year degree as opposed to the certificate standard, now in place.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I found myself questioning this position on the podcast. While I certainly have nothing against advancing academic standards, there are several serious limitations with the concept of a degree minimum for paramedics. Whereas degrees may be required in some fields, it may not be as beneficial in others; just because a health care administration degree is important for that field doesn't mean that is true for all fields.

For starters, we know that many EMS agencies struggle to keep up with the demand of educating new paramedics. They are certainly not likely to be supportive of a pathway that adds at minimum another year, and up to three more years to produce a qualified paramedic.

But wouldn't a degree level paramedic improve patient care? Since there are relatively few degreed paramedics out there practicing, I believe there is no evidence that an Associate or Bachelor educated paramedic can better take care of patients than a certified paramedic. We simply don't have an answer to the question.

However, the most important negative to the idea is that one has to ask if there are reasonable career enhancements available to those providers who would choose to pursue a degree program to become a paramedic.

EMS has not developed consistent career pathways that might reward a person seeking higher education. As a result, that particular motivation to attain a degree is not, yet, there.

So, given that limitation, if a degree standard was in place, could we really expect many individuals to commit the time and money necessary towards earning a degree? I don't think so.

The idea of judging the investment in higher education in terms of ultimate career enhancement may seem crass to some. In other words, shouldn't we just desire and appreciate a college-level experience for the sake of just seeking education?

Yes and no.

I have no problem with someone who chooses higher education for the sake of doing it. These are people who want to learn for learning's sake. Most of us probably know or work with such individuals. So for those in that category I say, have at it!

But there are likely more of us who don't see things quite that way. The reality is that most of us have significant financial and time constraints to consider. These demands only increase as we get a little older and gain more responsibilities.

So for most people, the questions are what is the time and investment involved in acquiring a college degree worth? Can I get a good job – or even a job at all – after graduation?

At least I think these should be the questions we ask. Most major purchases we make include a careful analysis of the potential benefits. Why shouldn't we do this with higher education?

Collegiate costs rose on average 8.3 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to an article in CNN Money from October 2011. This is obviously significantly ahead of the inflation rate.

Indeed, a rule of thumb is that college tuition increases can be expected to rise at a rate at least double that of inflation. Many institutions far exceed that. Much of this is fueled, in my opinion, by the great quantity of scholarships and federally funded grants and loans.

Despite the ever rising cost of tuition, many Bachelor's Degree recipients are unable to find jobs.

Why shouldn't the college education community be held to a standard of post graduate job attainment? What about enhanced career opportunities for those with a graduate degree over those with a certificate? Isn't that what most graduates ultimately want?

As the father of four children who funded their college experiences culminating in their Bachelor's Degrees, I am both a consumer and customer of higher education in its vast forms. From personal experience, I can say that not all degrees are created equally when it comes to the issue of employment.

So the point is that when we opine that a degree requirement should be an ideal for future paramedics, we are not considering reality. What motivates most people to advance?
The prospect of greater career options, which is really code for greater economic opportunity.

The EMS profession should take a page from the nursing profession. Nursing has created many opportunities for career enhancement for those with Bachelor's degrees, but even more for those who have achieved a Masters in Nursing. Most of these opportunities are in management in hospital settings, but include both corporate and government, too.

However, there is a tremendous opportunity for EMS to up the ante for higher education and career advancement. I refer to the future of community paramedicine and its related training requirements and patient care responsibilities. Like many, I believe that there is a very significant role for EMS in this area in the years ahead.

EMS is now at the threshold of defining the standards for these and other non-transport health care provider opportunities. It seems likely this may provide that path of career advancement, as well as higher reimbursement, for EMS.

If so, now is the time to mandate at least an Associate's, if not a Bachelor's, degree for those paramedics aspiring to be involved in these key non-transport patient care roles.

If not now, when? If EMS fails to seize this moment, the ideal of a college degree minimum for paramedics is whistling dixie. 

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