Over the past 24 months or so, there has been a lot of debate on whether paramedics should be required to have an associate degree. I initially loved the idea of such a mandate. Working in EMS academia, I believe requiring some sort of higher education would not only help legitimize our field but also set high standards that will help lead to higher compensation for prehospital workers.
That said, though, there are two sides to this idea. While organizations like the National Association of EMS Educators (NAEMSE) and National EMS Management Association (NEMSMA) have made progressive recommendations that could require degree requirements by 2025, other fire/EMS organizations, such as the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), have opposed the concept.
NAEMSE and NEMSMA have a joint position statement on degree requirements for paramedics that makes a great point: “The practice of paramedicine has become increasingly complex, and future paramedics are going to be required to not only exercise high-level technical skill but must also master written and oral communications skills, provide EMS team leadership, and interact with an increasingly complex interdisciplinary and interprofessional healthcare system with rapidly evolving technologies.”1
However, like almost everything in EMS, there are other ways to think about this issue. Look at the same issue from a workforce standpoint: The simple fact is, there are not enough paramedics in the United States. This can be due to turnover, pay, educational standards, and/or burnout, but many systems already struggle to find the personnel they need.
The IAFC has taken a position opposing EMS degree requirements. While this has caused a lot of outside criticism, it is a valid point of view: “The IAFC continues to have serious concerns about proposals to require paramedic students to obtain a college degree as part of their licensure process. The IAFC believes this requirement would increase paramedic shortages and force many paramedic training programs to close. The combination of these two factors would make it increasingly difficult for fire departments to meet the EMS needs of their communities.”2
From the point of view of a supervisor, employer, or chief, having your new hires or employees suddenly be mandated to go for an associate degree could have a great negative impact on everyday operations. Traditionally most associate degree programs last approximately two years. That assumes the student successfully passes every class and does not include the additional costs of school.
Nonetheless, I strongly recommend those in the paramedic student arena at least think about trying to obtain an associate degree. It can help you get promoted and be a better overall provider. Taking general education classes, like writing, speaking, philosophy, and pathology, on top of your paramedic classes will help you take your professionalism to the next level.
However, this should be a personal goal for paramedic providers. Until we can fix the deficits in paramedic recruitment, retention, burnout, and compensation, it is a lot to demand degree requirements.
There is good news: EMS is moving forward. States implementing National Registry testing instead of just state testing has made the paramedic educational system better. Paramedic training programs like mine are required to adhere to strict but fair guidelines from accreditation organizations like the Committee on Accreditation of Educational Programs for the Emergency Medical Services Professions (CoAEMSP).
CoAEMSP uses evidenced-based EMS education as a tool to assist paramedic training programs. It is also recognized as a leader in evidence-based standards for accreditation. This is important because EMS educational institutions need to have standards. This allows each student that attends an accredited program to know they are receiving the best possible education.
So what is the right answer to the question of whether paramedic degrees should be mandatory? My answer is yes, one day—but we are not ready yet and won’t be anytime soon. I encourage anyone reading this to always better themselves through higher education and try to improve in some way every day. However, this is a personal choice.
Having a paramedic degree won’t hurt you or be a waste of time, and it may make you more rounded. At the end of the day, being a paramedic means being a lifelong learner. Do what is right for you, your family, your agency, and your community.
2. International Association of Fire Chiefs. Opposing Degree Requirements for Paramedic Certification, www.iafc.org/topics-and-tools/resources/resource/EMSDegreeRequirements.
Tim Williamson, BS, NRP, NCEE, is EMS program director at Gateway Technical College in Burlington, Wisc. He has worked in EMS/fire for more than 10 years and specializes in emergency management, disaster response, and EMS education.