Top physical therapy schools

Top Physical Therapy Schools, Top Physical Therapy Schools 2021, top schools for physical therapy, top ranked physical therapy schools, top rated physical therapy schools
Top physical therapy schools

Physical therapy school selection and where to earn a graduate degree are big decisions. According to CAPTE, the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, 294 physical therapy programs in the United States are either accredited or candidates for accreditation by CAPTE. 

Among these programs, 37,000 students enrolled in a physical therapy program. These students faced deciding which of the 300 programs they should apply to. When it comes time to choose where to send your applications, what factors are there to consider?

Selecting where you will call home for the next 2-3 years is not a decision to take lightly. Admission into a physical therapy school is your first step toward a rewarding career of helping people through injury and illness, and these programs are rigorous. 

Understanding how to select the right physical therapy school for you extends beyond a simple internet search for the top-rated physical therapy schools. Although we all might hope for admission to one of the top ten ranked PT schools, as you will learn below, ranking physical therapy schools is not as simple as you may think. 

Don’t despair, however. Keep reading to learn why opening your mind to consider a wide range of factors will help you choose a physical therapy school that will provide a great education and set you up for success in many areas of your life.

Academic quality of physical therapy schools

All CATPE-accredited physical therapy programs will prepare you to graduate, pass the National Physical Therapy Board Exam (NPTE) and earn your license to practice physical therapy. The quality of academic preparation is critical to arm you with the latest evidence-based practice knowledge, a strong clinical foundation, and a sense of confidence in your ability to start treating patients.

A quick internet search for the “best physical therapy school in X year” will net you a surprisingly long list of results. What you will notice pretty quickly, however, is that each of these sites has a different list of what they consider top-ranked physical therapy schools. Before you slam the laptop shut and lose hope of knowing which physical therapy school you should apply to, let’s look a little closer at this situation., for example, is a website that “provides college rankings, reviews, and ratings according to the latest U.S. Department of Education data and other reputable sources for higher education institution data.” 

In 2023 they provided a list of what they consider to be the best physical therapy schools with CUNY Hunter College Department of Physical Therapy as their #1 ranked program followed by CUNY College of Staten Island and California State University–Fresno as the #2 and #3 picks. 

According to their website, compiled this list based on three criteria: 
  • The physical therapy school is a 4-year public or private university 

  • Graduates earn an early career salary of $25,000+

  • Average net cost

In 2020, The U.S. News and World Report published a report of their rankings for the Best Physical Therapy Programs. Rankings are based solely on the results of peer assessment surveys sent to deans, other administrators, or faculty at accredited degree programs or schools. Respondents rated the academic quality of the physical therapy schools on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (outstanding). Based on their surveys, the top 3 ranked physical therapy schools in the U.S., all with a score of 4.4, are the University of Delaware, the University of Pittsburgh, and Washington University in St. Louis.

Finally,  College Factual  “provides higher education, college and university, degree, program, career, salary, and other helpful information to students, faculty, institutions, and other internet audiences.” In 2023 they list the University of Southern California Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy as their #1 school, followed by Samuel Merritt University and the University of Texas Medical Branch at #2 and #3.

This site uses several criteria to rank their top physical therapy schools:
  • Accreditation
  • Student body caliber
  • Student demand
  • Major breadth and depth
  • Educational resources
  • Degree completion
  • Post graduate debt
  • Post graduate earnings

As you can see, understanding the ranking methodology when considering whether the “#1 best physical therapy school” is right for you is crucial. Just as these sites have selected a set of criteria they feel is most important when choosing the best physical therapy school, you need to decide which criteria are most important. After doing so, you will get much more out of these raking sites, and you will begin to see that the top physical therapy school for you is the one that meets your criteria. Next, we will dive more into several criteria you should consider when deciding where to apply.

Cost of physical therapy schools

Selecting a physical therapy school to enroll in should not be done without considering the cost of the program. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for physical therapists in 2021 was $95,620 per year or an average hourly pay of $45.97. Depending on where you practice, your income could be much lower or higher than the median. For example, the average mean wage for a physical therapist in Nevada in 2022 was $105,880, but in Florida, it was $91,730. 

According to the Economic Policy Institute, a household with two adults and two children living in the Las Vegas Metropolitan area would need to bring in $81,813 annually to maintain a modest yet adequate standard of living, whereas the same family in Orlando, FL would need to bring in $84,927.

This estimate accounts for factors like housing costs, childcare, taxes, healthcare, etc., but does not necessarily weigh student loan debt repayment. According to a survey conducted by the American Physical Therapy Association, 9 in 10 PTs and PTAs are in debt for an average of nearly $153,000 (not including mortgage debt), and about $116,000 is PT education-related debt. A $100k student loan on a 20-year repayment plan could require an average monthly payment of >$700.

Now these facts aren’t intended to scare you but to press upon you the importance of cost and projected student loan debt as one of the factors that will help you select your ideal physical therapy school.

According to CAPTE, the range of annual tuition costs for physical therapy schools in the 2021-2022 academic year was as follows:
  • Public in-state program: $4,232-$91,842
  • Public out-of-state program: $10,578-$122,200
  • Private program: $22,985-$122,550

As you can see, annual tuition costs could range from $4,232 to $122,550 based on where you decide to go to school.

A cost of living calculator can also help you plan for costs associated with your place of residence. Whether renting an apartment, living with family members, or staying in a dorm room on campus, you can increase or decrease your cost of living. If cost and debt are important considerations for you, Tim Fraticelli, DPT, MBA, CFP suggests you look for a school with tuition rates that will help you achieve a debt-to-income ratio of less than 1:1. 

While this may not be possible depending on where you decide to go to school, considering the income you expect to make when you begin your career as a practicing physical therapist and comparing it to your graduate school debt, undergraduate school debt and living expenses is a great thing to consider.

National physical therapy exam pass rate

Two to three years of hard work all culminate in the National Physical Therapy Board Exam, which, when passed, designates you as eligible for your physical therapy license. While all accredited programs are structured to prepare you to pass the board exams, and the majority of programs have more than a 97% eventual pass rate according to 2018-2019 statistics, it is still a good idea to stop by the Federations of State Board of Physical Therapy website and look at their document titled NPTE Pass Rates By Program to help ensure you have the best chance at being able to practice all the skills you worked so hard to learn.

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Program-specific factors for physical therapy schools

Although physical therapy schools are structured to provide a comparable education across the board, each program has unique qualities that may fulfill personal interests you hope to explore while earning your degree. Here are a few examples of opportunities you might consider:

On-campus physical therapy clinics: A.T. Still University in Mesa, AZ hosts a pro bono clinic where student doctors can perform physical therapy treatments while supervised by department faculty and staff. If interested in getting more hands-on experience throughout your education while giving back to the local community, look for a program with a pro-bono or community clinic where DPT students can work.

International service-learning opportunities: The DPT program a Georgia State University offers international service-learning opportunities for its students. Students can participate in an 8-day trip to Nicaragua to provide care to individuals in rural communities. It is not the only program offering service-learning trips abroad, so if this excites you, search for programs to get involved in healthcare opportunities outside of your immediate community.

Elective courses: Aside from the DPT school curriculum, many schools offer electives to students to pursue interests and passions in a more specialized field. At Emory University, students may be able to take electives such as Advanced Oncology (DPT 935 and 935A), Advanced PT Applications of Pain Neuroscience (DPT 937), Introduction to Women’s Health (DPT 940), Lower Limb Prosthetics (DPT 946), and Business Management for the Physical Therapist Entrepreneur (DPT 952).

Clinical education opportunities: Clinical education or working as a student physical therapist under the supervision of a licensed PT clinical instructor is a required component for all DPT programs and where students learn to put their didactic education into practice. Clinical education length varies between programs and may be as low as 28 weeks and as high as 56 weeks. 

If more time practicing is something you feel strongly about, look into schools offering more weeks of clinical education throughout their program. Many schools have relationships with hospitals and clinics in their community. If you would love to have a rotation at a specific location and it is not already an affiliated clinic with your school, be sure to ask the school if they are open to creating new affiliations or if you will be limited to the ones they already have in place. While clinical education improves learning and practice, it can also be an opportunity to live in a new, fun location. It may also lead to postgraduate employment opportunities.

Hybrid and accelerated learning environments: While the average length of a DPT program is 2.4 years, both accelerated programs that complete their coursework in 2 years and hybrid programs that offer online and in-person learning have emerged over the last few years. For example, Baylor University’s Hybrid DPT program is 24 months. It includes 67 weeks of didactic curriculum spread across six academic semesters and 31 weeks of full-time clinical education performed in clinical settings. Accordingly, the instructional time provided by this program is the equivalent of three academic years. In this example, 50% of the program is completed as distance education using a variety of online learning platforms, 20% is onsite hands-on lab immersion sessions, and 30% is clinical education experiences. While you have to factor the cost of travel to and from the campus into the equation, programs like this are a valuable option for someone who is experienced with online learning, looking to expedite the completion of their degree, and may not want to or be able to move very close to the location of their program.

Other considerations when weighing physical therapy schools

Once you’ve taken into account the academic quality of the program, the passing rate on the national board exams, the cost of tuition, the cost to live near your program, where you’d like to live and practice after graduation, and program-specific factors that you deem necessary, there are a couple of other things we recommend you think about before you click yes on that acceptance offer. 

While physical therapy schools can offer you opportunities to build lasting new relationships and learn new skills that will propel you into a rewarding career, this article would be incomplete without addressing how to ensure your physical, mental, and emotional well-being throughout your program.

Social support: Undoubtedly, you will make new friends in your cohort of fellow DPT students, but if being able to see your family or close friends from home is part of how you manage stress and maintain your happiness, then thinking about how easy or difficult it is to visit them may impact where you decide to apply for school.

Student body and faculty diversity: Diversity in your program cohort and faculty will vary based on school and location. This aspect can be crucial to a student’s social support and mental well-being and is a factor to consider before enrolling in a rigorous program like a doctorate in physical therapy.

Work or work-study opportunities: Working part-time while in PT school is tough, but many people do it. If this is part of your plan, talk to your potential programs about work-study opportunities and get a sense of what work opportunities might be available to you in the area you will be living.

Scholarship opportunities: Whenever possible, minimize student loan debt. When deciding which schools to apply to, researching scholarship opportunities is a great strategy to lower personal tuition responsibilities.

Recreation: While you will spend a lot of time in class and studying, finding time to fulfill your interests and passions outside of academics is essential to maintaining balance and preventing burnout. If you love the outdoors, maybe a program in the middle of a large metropolitan area is not the best fit. Is attending professional sporting events one of your favorite weekend pastimes? If sporting events are important, consider a program not too far from one of these stadiums or arenas. Do you love to travel? Perhaps a school with easy access to an airport or good access to weekend getaways will keep you happy and refreshed.

Putting it all together

As you can see, finding the top physical therapy school is about deciding what is most important to you. Start by generating a list of factors you care about and ranking them by how much weight they will have in your final decision. Online ranking websites can be helpful. Start by looking for their published ranking methodology to find a site with the criteria essential to your personal choices. It can be a great starting point for some individuals. Utilize the CAPTE directory of physical therapy schools to learn about what programs exist in each state and div


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