How to Pay for Physical Therapy School (With Less Student Debt)

 March 11, 2020
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Six of 10 physical therapy (PT) students will leave school toting more than $50,000 in student loan debt, according to WebPT. But if you’re an aspiring PT, you can avoid that level of hurt with physical therapy scholarships, plus other smart tactics.

Here’s how to avoid borrowing too much in student loans as you choose from among 250-plus accredited physical therapy programs in the U.S.

How much does PT school cost?
How to pay for DPT school: Start with scholarships and state grants
How to pay off physical therapy school loans — while in school

How much does PT school cost?

The field of physical therapy is expected to grow by 22% through the 2018-2028 period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Jobs aren’t especially difficult to find. In fact, most programs have employment rates at or near 99%. With that in mind, going to costlier, more prestigious schools might not be worth your money.

But you don’t have to seek out the cheapest doctor of physical therapy (DPT) programs either. You could cut your cost in half by attending an in-state school. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, nonresidents with full course loads pay about twice as much in tuition and fees ($19,043) per semester as their local peers ($10,180).

The other benefit of attending school close to home is that it could minimize your room and board costs, which can rack up. Duke University’s financial aid office, for example, estimates that the annual price of apartment rent and food in the Durham, N.C., area is approximately $25,320. Imagine wiping away most of that price tag by living at home, if that’s an option.

You could also halve your cost of attendance by prioritizing public universities. The average annual tuition of a public DPT program ($18,390) is dwarfed by the price tag of private schools ($37,014), according to the American Physical Therapy Association.

For the duration of your three-year program, you’d pay an average of $65,170 in tuition and fees at a public school versus $112,714 at a private one. Ask yourself if the price difference is worth it.

How to pay for DPT school: Start with scholarships and state grants

Once you’ve found a school that doesn’t come with a high price tag, continue to seek financial aid to lower your cost of attendance even further.

Your school could be a source of this assistance, so it’s wise to check in with campus financial aid offices, regardless of whether you’ve already applied. Aid offices can tell you about which type of financial package you could expect to receive or can walk you through campus-offered scholarships for physical therapy students.

Your off-campus options include seeking grants from your home state. Many states, including Colorado, Connecticut and Delaware, offer grants to graduate students. Keep in mind that your eligibility for physical therapy grants could depend on your level of financial need.

Other government-funded physical therapy scholarships might ask for service in exchange for aid. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ (VA) Health Professional Scholarship Program, for example, calls for two years serving in a VA clinic. Similarly, the Indian Health Service Scholarship requires its recipients to work for two years in a health facility serving an American Indian or Alaska Native community once they receive their diploma.

Also, seek out private organizations that provide physical therapy scholarships for 2019-2020 and beyond.

6 scholarships for physical therapy students

  1. BrightLife Physical Therapy Scholarship: $1,000 to current rehab therapy students regardless of their financial background or prospects
  2. The American Physical Therapist Association’s (APTA) Minority Scholarship Award: A cash reward for high-performing students who are nominated for their contributions to “minority affairs and services.”
  3. The APTA’s Mary McMillan Scholarship: A $5,000 award for high-performing PT students in their final year of school
  4. The Foundation for Physical Therapy Research’s scholarships: Between $7,500 and $15,000 of annual support for PTs with scholarly pursuits
  5. Tylenol Future Care Scholarship: Ten $10,000 scholarships and 25 $5,000 scholarships awarded annually to students majoring in a healthcare field
  6. National Society Daughters of the American Revolution’s awards: Renewable scholarships for students of many disciplines, including occupational and physical therapy

It’s wise to apply for all the physical therapy scholarships and grants you could reasonably win, though you may find yourself still in need of funds. In that case, you’re likely to turn to student loans. But even if taking on college debt becomes necessary, there are still ways to save yourself money by attacking the debt early.

How to pay off physical therapy school loans — while in school

Physical therapists can benefit from loan repayment assistance programs for their profession, and as noted above, the employment outlook is bullish. 

But even though you might be bright-eyed about your job prospects, you might be less enthused with your first salary figures. A majority of physical therapists (35%) earn between $60,001 and $80,000, according to WebPT.

With five-figure earnings, you likely won’t be able to repay your DPT debt overnight. To get a head start, begin repaying any borrowed amounts — federal or private — as soon as it’s feasible.

Our student loan prepayment calculator estimates how much you could save by starting your loan repayment ahead of schedule.

You might think repaying loans while you’re a full-time doctoral student is impossible. Consider, though, that you can come up with cash via a few strategies, including by qualifying for student loan forgiveness for physical therapists.

Find work on campus

As you evaluate potential PT programs, ask the careers services department about part-time positions that can help you chip away at your loan balances. All the better if the position is related to your field of study. You might find work as a lab assistant, for example, to cover your potentially pricey lab fees at school.

Budget your potential expenses

Comparing prospective expenses at your top-choice schools could help you borrow less money and repay it more quickly. By spending less than you need to on apartment rent, for example, you could devote the savings to loan payments.

Attending a school with lower off-campus costs also won’t leave you as tempted to misuse student loan funds.

Make fair comparisons between your contender schools by creating basic, line-by-line budgets.

Consider your long-term career aims

Not all physical therapy programs will cater to your specialty, so it’s wise to zero in on schools that could put you on the right career track. Nailing that step could eventually lead to a welcome dose of physical therapy loan forgiveness.

Once you know the type of physical therapist you aspire to be, you can discover related loan forgiveness programs and options.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness, for example, could wipe away your federal loans if you work as a physical therapist in public service for 10 years and meet other requirements.

If you don’t envision yourself working in a clinical therapy setting, on the other hand, you might review the National Institutes of Health Loan Repayment Program. You could receive up to $50,000 worth of repayment assistance if you pursue a research-oriented career.

As you’re deciding where to earn your degree, check on physical therapy scholarships and grants before you decide to borrow federal or private student loans.

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