Education Requirements for Dietitians
While there may be some confusion around the difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian, one thing is very clear: The level of education needed to practice in the field of Dietetics is well defined by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A Registered Dietitian (RD) or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) is the “gold” standard in this profession (the designations are interchangeable). An RD or RDN needs at least a bachelor’s degree, supervised practice experience, a passing grade in the national RD registration exam, and licensing in most states in order to practice.
There are good job opportunities at every level along the education pathway.
Many RD and RDN candidates pursue graduate degrees, obtaining a master’s to strengthen their knowledge base and attractiveness in the job market, and it’s a good idea to pursue one. In fact, by 2024, the minimum education requirement to earn the title RD or RDN will be a master’s degree.
While there are good job opportunities available at every level along the education pathway (nutritionists or dietetic technicians, for example), businesses that hire dietitians respect and value RD or RDN qualifications and routinely include a requirement or preference for these credentials in job descriptions and postings. RDs and RDNs are becoming more visible to the public as they move from clinical settings to take on prominent roles in a range of businesses like spas, health clubs, specialty retail food stores catering to diet-specific clients, major restaurant chains, and professional sports organizations.
It’s a rigorous course of study and practice, but well worth the effort, according to Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Hultin, a Seattle-based RDN and owner of ChampagneNutrition.com, enjoys the variety and “the dynamics of all the things I can do in my job. One minute I’m on-boarding a new private client, then I’m working with my intern, next I’m teaching a class, then I’m on a plane to the Middle East to teach classes on nutrition, and writing an article for a magazine on the plane.”
If you are passionate about nutrition and health, become an RDN.
“Don’t be afraid of the work it takes to get there,” Hultin adds. “It’s so worth it. If you’re passionate about nutrition and improving people’s health, go all the way to become an RDN. Don’t stop short and settle for a lesser degree or certification.”
The job market for RDs and RDNs is expanding rapidly, she adds. “There are actually a lot of really amazing career opportunities and you can absolutely make good money.”
But you need to start by earning your bachelor’s degree.
Degree Types: What Will I Study?
Supervised Practice Programs
Time to Complete: 9–12 months
Completion of a 1,200-hour supervised practice program is required to be eligible to take the national registration examination for the Registered Dietitian or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist credential. Many states also require supervised practice to qualify for licensing. Students are supervised by and work with professionals in the organizations and departments to which they are assigned.
Three options exist for completion of this requirement. Whichever one you choose, note it must be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND®). Options include:
Supervised practice for the above includes:
Rotations for your supervised work might include assignments in such areas as:
What to Look for in a School
Programs for dietitians can be found at a wide range of institutions including public, private, and for-profit schools, from community colleges with associate degrees to four-year colleges, and universities with undergraduate and graduate degrees. There are many things you may want to check out: What the campus looks and feels like; as well as admission requirements, faculty experience, specific degree programs for aspiring dietitians, graduation rates, financial aid, and more. This is a major investment in time and money, so you’ll want to take the time to visit the campus, meet with a program advisor, and make sure it’s a good fit. Beyond the programs and curriculum, there are several key items you should look for.
Accreditation is Key
You’ll want to make sure that the schools you are considering have been accredited by one of the approved regional accrediting commissions recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Accredited means the school offers quality education and meets certain standards. Credits earned at the school are more likely to be transferable to other schools and be accepted to meet requirements for higher-level degrees. In addition, in order to apply for federal financial aid, your school must be accredited.
Depending on where you live, your school should be accredited by one of the following regional agencies:
Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands
Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont
Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming
Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington
Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia
California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands
Make Sure the RD or RDN Program is Accredited, Too.
You will also need to make sure that the schools you are considering offer programs that meet the standards required for education that prepares students for careers as RDNs, as determined by ACEND. Undergraduate and graduate degree programs, as well as the supervised practice programs required for registration and licensing of RDNs must be approved by ACEND. Without this, you will not be eligible to take the national registration examination, which you need to pass in order to obtain a license in most states.
Important Questions to Ask Schools
Meeting with a program advisor from a school you’re interested in is a critical step in evaluating a school and its programs. You’ll want to review requirements for admission to the school, as well as the programs for RDNs. You’ll need to meet both sets of requirements for admission and maintain a specified grade point average once in attendance.
An advisor will be especially helpful if you are switching majors or returning to school for a career change, according to Hultin, who was herself a career-changer. The advisor will evaluate what course work you may need to take in advance of admission to fulfill the requirements for admission and assist you in figuring out where to take the classes. This is important if you need to take several science courses before enrolling, which is common for career changers, and was the case for Hultin.
What are the Admission Requirements?
School admission will generally require a high school diploma or GED, a good score on the SAT or ACT and a GPA of 3.0–3.5. All schools post admission requirements on their websites. Once in attendance, you’ll be expected to maintain at least a 3.0 in core classes for the RDN programs and a minimum of 2.0 in other classes. Grade expectations will be higher for entry into the most competitive schools and programs. At the graduate level, you’ll need a 3.0 GPA and a solid score on the GRE (above the 50th percentile) for admission.
What is the School’s RD Exam Passing Rate?
To gauge how successful the school’s program is, you’ll want to ask the advisor how students in the program perform on the national RD registration exam. Schools and programs approved by ACEND express this as the percentage of students who pass the exam within one year of graduating. For schools with solid programs, the rate tends to be 70% or higher; with many reporting 75%–85% and a few very competitive schools reporting 100%. Most schools list this information in the program summaries on their websites.
Can You Get a Dietitian’s Degree Online?
Many students, especially those making a career change, take some portion of their coursework online. “An advisor will be invaluable in helping you navigate the process,” Hultin says.
ACEND-accredited online classes are available, and especially popular for continuing education. In addition, ACEND has also reviewed and accredited several bachelor’s and master’s online degree programs. With few exceptions—such as classes that require lab work and supervised practice—it is possible to complete substantially all of the course work for a degree online at both the bachelor’s level and master’s level.
How Much Will it Cost to Go to School?
The potential cost of your education varies widely depending on the school, its location, and the level of degree you are seeking. According to recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average total costs for tuition, fees, and room and board are just over $10,000 a year for an associate’s degree, roughly $20,000 for a bachelor’s at a public university, and over $41,000 a year for a bachelor’s at a private institution. For graduate degrees, the average total cost of a master’s degree is reported to be $25,000 a year, while a research-focused doctoral degree cost $32,000.
Students at all levels can find grants and scholarships to help offset the costs of school, as well as potentially get tuition remission for work-study, teaching, or research.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation provides a number of scholarships, fellowships, grants, and awards each year to dietetics and nutrition program students and practitioners. Established in 1966, it is the only charitable organization devoted exclusively to promoting nutrition and dietetics. Many colleges also provide scholarships for study and stipends for research assistance to students studying dietetics and nutrition.