Choosing where to earn a graduate degree is a big decision. According to CAPTE, the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, there are more than 250 accredited physical therapy programs in the United States. When searching for the top schools for physical therapy in 2021 you will be able to find several resources for top ranked physical therapy schools to guide you in your search.
Selecting where you will call home for the next 2-3 years is not a decision to be taken lightly. Admission into a physical therapy program is your first step toward a rewarding career of helping people through injury and illness but in order to prepare you to be the best PT you can, the programs are rigorous and understanding how to select the right physical therapy program for you extends beyond a simple internet search for the top rated physical therapy schools. Although we all might hope to gain admission to one of the top ten ranked PT schools in the nation, the number of applicants per year far exceeds the number of students accepted each year into the top ten schools. Don’t despair, however, keep reading and you will learn why opening your mind to consider a wider range of factors will help you to choose a physical therapy program that will not only give you a great education but also help keep you happy and healthy.
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. There is no doubt, however, that the quality of academic preparation is important to ensure you are armed with the latest evidence-based practice knowledge, a strong clinical foundation and a sense of confidence in your ability to start treating patients.
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 program on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (outstanding). According to their surveys, the top 12 physical therapy programs based on academic quality in 2020 are as follows:
University of Delaware: #1 (score 4.4)
University of Pittsburgh: #1 (score 4.4)
Washington University in St. Louis: #1 (score 4.4)
Northwestern University: #4 (score 4.3)
University of Iowa: #4 (score 4.3)
University of Southern California: #4 (score 4.3)
Duke University: #7 (score 4.2)
Emory University: #8 (score 4.1)
Creighton University: #9 (score 3.9)
MGH Institute of Health Professionals: #9 (score 3.9)
The Ohio State University: #9 (score 3.9)
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: #9 (score 3.9)
Choosing a physical therapy program to enroll in should not be done without consideration for the cost of the program. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the median income for physical therapists in 2020 is $91,010 per year, however, depending on where you decide to practice, your income could be much lower or higher than the median. For example, the average annual income for a physical therapist in Nevada in 2020 was $102,860 but in South Dakota in 2018 it was $76,200. 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 that about $116,000 is PT education-related debt.
Now these facts aren’t intended to scare you but simply to press upon you the importance of taking into consideration cost and projected student loan debt as one of the factors that will help you select your ideal PT school program. According to CAPTE, the range of annual tuition costs for physical therapy programs in the 2019-2020 year is as follows:
Public In-State Program: $4,028 - $43,185
Public Out-of-State Program: $10,371 - $61,026
Private Program: $21,152 - $71,220
As you can see, annual tuition costs could range anywhere from $4,028 to $71,220 depending on where you decide to go to school.
A cost of living calculator can also help you to plan for costs associated with your place of residence. Whether renting an apartment, living with family members, staying in a dorm room on campus, there are many ways 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 the debt you expect to have in terms of 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 culminates 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.
Although physical therapy programs are structured to provide you with 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 that provides student doctors the opportunity to perform physical therapy treatments under the supervision of department faculty and staff. If you are interested in getting more hands-on experience throughout your education while giving back to the local community, look for a program that has a pro-bono or community clinic where DPT students can participate.
International Service Learning Opportunities: The DPT program at Georgia State University offers international service-learning opportunities for their students. In 2021 students can participate in an 8 day trip to Nicaragua to provide care to individuals in rural communities. This is not the only program that offers service-learning trips abroad, however, so if this excites you, search for programs that give you the chance to get involved in healthcare opportunities outside of your immediate community.
Elective Courses: Aside from the DPT school curriculum, many schools offer elective courses available to students to pursue interests and passions in a more specialized field. At Emory University, students may be able to take electives such as Business Management for the Physical Therapy Entrepreneur (DPT 952), Applied Nutrition for Physical Therapists (DPT 958), Interfacing Engineering Technology and Rehabilitation (DPT 990) and many others.
Clinical Education Opportunities: Clinical education--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 30 weeks and as high as 56.6 weeks. If more time practicing in the real world setting is something you feel strongly about, look into schools that offer more weeks of clinical education throughout their program. Many schools have relationships already set up with hospitals and clinics in their community. If you know you would love the opportunity 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.
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 a mixture of online and in-person learning have emerged over the last few years. For example, Baylor University’s Hybrid DPT program consists of 66 weeks of didactic instruction and 31 weeks of clinical education for a total of 97 weeks of instruction. 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 conducted as onsite hands-on lab immersion sessions, and 30% is completed as clinical education experiences. While you have to factor the cost of travel to and from the campus into the equation, programs like this may be a great 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.
What Else is Important?
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 and any program-specific factors that you deem important, there are a couple of other things we recommend you think about before you click yes on that acceptance offer. While PT school will offer you wonderful opportunities to build lasting new relationships and learn a new set of skills that will propel you into a rewarding career, this blog would be incomplete without addressing how to ensure your physical, mental and emotional well-being are taken care of 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.
Work or work study opportunities: Working a part-time job while in PT school is tough but many people do it. If this is part of your plan then 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.
Recreation: While you will spend a lot of your 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 with good access to weekend getaways will keep you happy and refreshed.
Putting it All Together
As you can see, the top rated physical therapy schools can be found not only by searching the internet for a list of PT school rankings but also by making a list of the elements of a DPT program that are important to you--such as those listed above-- and comparing schools that fulfill your own personal criteria. Excitement about learning and practicing physical therapy is one of the most important factors in becoming a great clinician and it all starts with picking the right physical therapy program for you!