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

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Six of 10 physical therapy students will leave school toting at least $70,000 in student loan debt, according to WebPT. But if you’re an aspiring physical therapist (PT), you can avoid that level of hurt with a little research.

Here’s how to avoid borrowing too much in student loans as you choose from among 240-plus accredited physical therapy programs in the U.S.

Avoid PT programs with unnecessarily costly tuition

The field of physical therapy is expected to grow by 28% through the 2016-2026 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 schools 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 ($18,304) per semester as their local peers ($9,778).

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 $24,252. 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 ($17,742) is dwarfed by the price tag of private schools ($35,534), according to the American Physical Therapy Association.

For the duration of your three-year program, you’d pay an average of $60,627 in tuition and fees at a public school versus $109,999 at a private one. Ask yourself if the price difference is worth it.

Seek out private 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 options to strengthen such a package.

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 grants could depend on your level of financial need.

Other government-funded 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.

Private scholarships often don’t carry such requirements. The BrightLife Direct scholarship, for example, offers $1,000 to current rehab therapy students regardless of their financial background or prospects.

It’s wise to apply for all the gift aid 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.

Start repaying your student loan debt ASAP

Although you might be bright-eyed about your job prospects, you might also be less enthused with your first salary figures. Nearly three-fourths of graduates expect to earn between $60,001 and $80,000 at their initial post-college gig, according to WebPT.

With five-figure earnings, you likely won’t be able to repay your student loan 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 shows 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.

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.

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 $35,000 worth of repayment assistance if you pursue a research-oriented career.

The best physical therapy schools aren’t always the best ones for your situation. They also don’t have to be the most expensive. As you’re deciding where to earn your degree, consider the costs before you decide to borrow federal or private student loans.

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Published in Paying for College, Student Loan Forgiveness, Student Loan Repayment