To qualify for positions as physical therapy assistants, candidates need an associate degree from an accredited physical therapy assistant program. Most full-time learners complete their associate program in about two years. This guide compares programs in the field and explores common options for graduates.
What Can I Do With a Physical Therapy Assistant Degree?
Physical therapy assistant programs help learners develop technical proficiencies and skills in communication, teamwork, and observation. Individuals with an associate degree in the field can work in a variety of settings, including private offices, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and home health services. Graduates may also pursue specialized certifications to improve their marketability and earning potential.
Under the supervision of physical therapists, physical therapy assistants guide patients through the rehabilitation process. Responsibilities may include implementing therapeutic exercise regimens, explaining treatment plans, and teaching patients to use adaptive devices. Physical therapy assistants may also administer interventions such as massage and ultrasound therapy.
While physical therapy aides need only a high school diploma, physical therapy assistants need an associate degree. Current physical therapy aides can pursue an associate of science (AS) or an associate of applied science (AAS) to advance their careers and qualify for physical therapy assistant positions.
Accreditation for a Physical Therapy Assistant Degree
While researching physical therapy assistant programs, students should confirm that each prospective school holds accreditation. Accreditation demonstrates that the institution or program meets set educational standards in areas including faculty credentials and curriculum quality.
Colleges and universities in the U.S. can hold regional or national accreditation. However, regional accreditation is older and more prestigious, with higher standards for academic quality. Accrediting agencies need approval from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
The most reputable physical therapy assistant programs hold field-specific accreditation. Many state boards require licensure candidates to hold a degree from an associate program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Students can search ED's online database to verify the accreditation status of any school or program.
|Can you be a physical therapist assistant with an associate degree?||An associate degree satisfies the educational requirements for entry-level physical therapy assistant positions. Associate degree-holders can qualify to take licensure exams.|
|What major do you need to be a physical therapist assistant?||Physical therapy assistants need an AS or AAS in the field. Students in these professional training programs develop career-specific knowledge and skills.|
|How long does it take to become a physical therapist assistant?||Most physical therapy assistant programs take about two years to complete. Some students can graduate sooner by transferring credits from AP classes or previous college experience.|
|Can you become a physical therapist assistant with a bachelor's?||Few schools offer bachelor's-level physical therapy assistant programs. Students pursuing a bachelor's in the field typically study to become physical therapists.|
What Are the Requirements for a Physical Therapy Assistant Degree?
Students often pursue physical therapy assistant programs at community colleges, many of which offer open enrollment. These institutions accept all applicants with a high school or GED diploma. Students must typically fulfill general education requirements and program-specific prerequisites before applying to their college's physical therapy assistant program.
Applicants to physical therapy assistant programs typically need a minimum 2.5 GPA in prerequisite coursework. Applicants may also need to sit for entrance exams or submit letters of recommendation. To graduate, students must maintain a minimum GPA throughout the coursework and must complete clinical internships.
Courses in a Physical Therapy Program
Aspiring physical therapy assistants typically begin their studies with prerequisite and general education courses. Prerequisite classes in composition and social science foster communication skills and cultural competence. Science and math requirements help learners develop critical thinking and quantitative reasoning. Courses in anatomy, physiology, and medical terminology prepare students for advanced instruction in physical therapy science.
Major coursework blends classroom instruction with hands-on labs and clinical experiences. While studying topics such as kinesiology, pathophysiology, and neurology, learners build theoretical knowledge that is essential for safe and informed practice. Students also become familiar with therapeutic modalities and explore ethics and law. Graduation requirements and available courses vary by program. However, the classes below are common to many physical therapy assistant programs.
Introduction to Physical Therapy
This foundational course provides an overview of the physical therapy profession, including its scope and common practices. Learners explore the history and philosophy of the profession and examine the role of physical therapy assistants in relation to rehabilitation teams. Students learn about legal and ethical issues, practice communication techniques, and prepare to deliver culturally sensitive care to patients of diverse ages and backgrounds.
Physical Therapy Modalities
This course covers theoretical principles and practical applications of techniques physical therapy assistants use to treat patients. Learners explore key intervention strategies and their applications in various situations. Students master basic patient care skills. They learn how to take vital signs, measure and document patient progress, and safely implement modalities. Course topics may include patient transfer techniques, wound care, therapeutic exercise, and assistive devices.
Kinesiology, the study of how human bodies move, underlies the practice of physical therapy. Physical therapy assistants need an understanding of kinesiology to implement and modify treatment plans for patients with impaired mobility. Learners study the structure and function of the human musculoskeletal and nervous systems. Students explore how physiological, mechanical, psychological, and sociocultural factors impact each system. This class typically includes lab components.
Principles of Disease
Programs often deliver this class in a format combining lectures and lab work. Students learn about common diseases and conditions that physical therapy can treat. Learners study the function, parts, and pathologies of various physical systems, and coursework often emphasizes musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, and cardiopulmonary disorders. Coursework explores treatment modalities for patients of all ages, and students learn how to educate patients and recommend interventions.
Licensure and Professional Development
This course helps students transition from school to the workforce. Learners hone skills to support their job search, and they create personal career development goals. Students learn about state-specific licensing processes, review for licensure exams, and practice job interview techniques. Learners may also write resumes and develop personal career plans. Degree-seekers typically take this class during their final semester.
How to Become a Physical Therapy Assistant
Like many healthcare professionals, physical therapy assistants must meet stringent education and licensing requirements to practice. Regulations vary by state, but all states require physical therapy assistants to complete a CAPTE-accredited program and sit for the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE), which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.
Each state sets specific licensure requirements for physical therapy professionals. In addition to earning an associate degree and passing the NPTE, some states require candidates to undergo a background check, complete courses in physical therapy jurisprudence, and provide references. Most states require physical therapy assistants to take continuing education courses to maintain licensure.
Certifications and Licensure for Physical Therapy Majors
In addition to mandatory state licensure, physical therapy assistants often pursue voluntary certifications. Earning specialized certifications helps professionals demonstrate knowledge in interest areas and can lead to career advancement and increased earning potential. Specializations may focus on certain health issues or specific patient populations.
The American Physical Therapy Association offers seven certification options for licensed physical therapy assistants who hold membership with the association. Candidates must document 2,000 clinical hours and 60 hours of online or in-person continuing education in their interest area. Specialization options include wound management, oncology, pediatrics, and acute care.
The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties offers a certification program with 10 specialization options. Candidates must be licensed physical therapy practitioners who have completed at least 2,000 hours of clinical experience in their chosen area. Each specialization features different certification requirements. However, all candidates must pass a written exam.
Drawing on both physical therapy and occupational therapy, hand therapy focuses on rehabilitation of patients' hands, arms, and shoulders. The Hand Therapy Certification Commission certifies licensed physical therapy assistants. Candidates must pass an exam and must have completed at least 4,000 clinical hours of direct patient care in hand therapy.
Professional Organizations for Physical Therapy Students
Joining a professional organization can benefit both physical therapy students and practicing clinicians. These organizations provide a platform to help members shape the future of their profession through dialogue, publication, and advocacy. Members often receive access to networking and career advancement opportunities, continuing education resources, and members-only scholarships.
- American Physical Therapy Association
Licensed practitioners and students enrolled in accredited physical therapy programs are eligible to join APTA. Members can attend conferences and access scholarly research, continuing education resources, and an online career center. The association maintains internal sections and academies focused on advocacy issues and specialized areas of practice.More Information
- The American Academy of Physical Therapy
Dedicated to supporting African American physical therapy professionals and those belonging to other minority groups, the AAPT accepts professional and student members. The organization offers networking, educational, career development, and mentorship opportunities. The AAPT hosts an annual conference and sponsors a scholarship for students in the final year of their physical therapy or physical therapy assistant program.More Information
- American Association for Anatomy
AAA members include professionals and students involved in the field of anatomy, including applied fields such as physical therapy. The association provides publications, webinars, and meetings to help members advance their anatomical knowledge. Professional development resources include a career center and a mentorship program.More Information
- National Strength and Conditioning Association
The NSCA supports sport science professionals, including physical therapy assistants who specialize in sports rehabilitation. The organization helps members advance their careers and deepen their knowledge of the field through conferences, a job board, and field-specific publications. The NSCA also offers professional certifications for sport science practitioners.More Information
Scholarships for Physical Therapy Students
In addition to other forms of funding, such as grants and loans, students can pursue scholarships from a variety of sources. Physical therapy students may qualify for physical therapy scholarships and health science scholarships. Additionally, many organizations offer awards based on factors such as residency, ethnicity, or veteran status.
- Michael Moody Fitness Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Author and physical trainer Michael Moody sponsors this scholarship for graduating high school seniors and current college students. Candidates must be majoring in a discipline related to health or fitness, such as physical therapy. Applicants must answer essay questions related to their outstanding achievements, leadership activities, and views on public health issues.
Amount: $1,500More Information
- Occupational/Physical Therapy Scholarship
Who Can Apply: The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) offers this award to students who are enrolled in an accredited program in occupational, physical, music, or art therapy. Applicants must demonstrate financial need and must submit transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement. The organization encourages applicants to contact their local DAR chapter for application assistance.
Amount: $2,000More Information
- Encompass Rehabilitation Scholarship Endowment
Who Can Apply: Students pursuing a career in nursing or therapy can apply for this award from the John Randolph Foundation. Applicants must meet GPA requirements, and candidates who demonstrate financial need receive preference. Applicants should work, be involved in athletics, or provide community service.
Amount: $1,000More Information
- Elizabeth J. Davis Scholarship
Who Can Apply: This scholarship supports Vermont residents who are majoring in nursing; medical social work; or physical, speech, or occupational therapy. Applicants may be studying anywhere in the United States, but they should plan to seek home healthcare employment in Vermont after graduation. Applicants must submit two essays.
Amount: $1,000-$3,000More Information
- AAHD Frederick J. Krause Scholarship on Health and Disability
Who Can Apply: The American Association on Health & Disability awards this scholarship to students with disabilities. Applicants must have completed one year of college, and those who plan to pursue a career related to disability and health receive preference. Applicants must submit transcripts, recommendation letters, a personal statement, and documentation of their disability.
Amount: $1,000More Information
Best Online Physical Therapy Assistant Programs 2021
|Rank||Logo||School||Tuition||# of Online Programs||Acceptance Rate||Graduation Rate||Financial Aid||Credit For Experience||Placement Service||Counseling Services||Description & Additional Information||Toggle|
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|1||San Juan College Farmington, NM||Tuition $5,796||# of Online Programs||Acceptance Rate -||Graduation Rate -||Financial Aid -||Credit For Experience -||Placement Service -||Counseling Services -||
A comprehensive community college with its main campus in Farmington, New Mexico, SJC offers a hybrid physical therapy assistant program that prepares graduates to sit for national licensing exams. Students earning their associate of applied science (AAS) degree take most classes online, but must attend lab courses on campus.
This structured, sequential program includes four trimesters of prerequisite and general education requirements, followed by six trimesters of major coursework. Enrollees examine the role of the physical therapy assistant as part of a care team. They study rehabilitation modalities and procedures and practice their skills through clinical externships in their home areas. A professional seminar guides candidates through the processes of obtaining licensure and launching their careers.
Applicants must take an admissions exam and submit transcripts and recommendations. The AAS program is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. SJC is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.
|2||Santa Fe College Gainesville, FL||Tuition $11,244||# of Online Programs||Acceptance Rate -||Graduation Rate -||Financial Aid -||Credit For Experience -||Placement Service -||Counseling Services -||
SF's associate of science program trains students to enter the workforce as licensed physical therapy assistants in Florida. Enrollees in the cohort-based program study full time, taking classes both online and at the public school's Gainesville campus.
The 74-credit program is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education and features 27 credits of prerequisites and 47 credits of core courses. After students complete prerequisites, they take core courses in a prescribed four-trimester sequence alongside members of their cohort.
Coursework covers foundational subjects in physical therapy, including kinesiology, therapeutic exercise, musculoskeletal disorders, and neurological disorders. Candidates learn a variety of modalities for rehabilitating patients of all ages. They gain hands-on experience through lab components and clinical internships. In their final term, they explore potential career specializations, receive help drafting resumes, and review for licensing exams.
SF is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
|3||State Fair Community College Sedalia, MO||Tuition $4,351||# of Online Programs||Acceptance Rate -||Graduation Rate -||Financial Aid -||Credit For Experience -||Placement Service -||Counseling Services -||
A public community college in Sedalia, Missouri, SFCC serves students both online and at its seven campuses. Students planning a career in occupational therapy gain the qualifications necessary for entry-level employment through the school's occupational therapy assistant associate of applied science program. This program features online instruction, on-campus classes, and clinical fieldwork.
Like physical therapy assistants, occupational therapy assistants work directly with individuals living with disabilities or recovering from illness or injury. SFCC's program accepts applicants who have taken 32 credits of prerequisites and earned a minimum 2.5 GPA. Admitted students typically complete the 48 credits of professional training in one year. The curriculum provides an overview of the history, philosophy, ethics, and professional practices of occupational therapy. Enrollees learn how to work with patients of all ages experiencing diverse challenges.
SFCC's program is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education. SFCC is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.