Schools and Programs
Respiratory care is a branch of allied health concerned with the assessment, management and treatment of a patient’s breathing. As specialists in the field, respiratory therapists use both evaluation and therapeutic techniques to help patients deal with a range of breathing issues, from emphysema in adults to underdeveloped lungs in newborn children. Today, nearly 120,000 individuals are employed as respiratory therapists in the U.S., with more than 75 percent working in general medical and surgical hospitals. A growing profession, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects double digit growth national between 2012 and 2022. The following guide serves as a high-level introduction to educational options available in respiratory therapy, certification and specialization opportunities, and an interview with a program director of a respiratory therapy program.
Best Respiratory Therapist Programs
Studying to become a respiratory therapist may be beneficial to those looking to work with state-of-the-art technology while providing medical assistance to patients. Since respiratory care is a growing healthcare field, there are many respiratory therapy schools for students to choose from. To make this choice easier for prospective students, we have found the top schools in this field by analyzing every program in the country based on our criteria. Find the best respiratory therapy school below.
Becoming a registered therapist begins with completing education requirements. The minimum educational requirement for respiratory therapists is an associate degree from an accredited respiratory therapy program, according to the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC). However, advanced degree options in respiratory care are available at both the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels. The Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC) is the central accrediting body for educational programs in respiratory therapy. The CoARC categorizes respiratory therapy programs into one of three levels: 200-, 300-, and 400-level:
- 200-level. Graduates from 200-level programs are eligible to sit for the National Board for Respiratory Care Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) credentials.
- 300-level. These programs are conducted at satellite locations separate from the main location where all respiratory core class and laboratory coursework are offered. Does not include completely online distance or online education programs.
- 400-level. Graduates in 400-level programs develop core competencies of sleep disorder specialists and are eligible to take the National Board for Registry Care’s Sleep Disorders Specialty (SDS) credential and the Board of Registered Polysomnographic Technologist’s Registered Polysomnographic Technologist (RPSGT) credential examinations.
According to the most recent report from the CoARC, there are a total of 441 accredited respiratory therapy educational programs as of December 31, 2013. These degree programs are sponsored both by private and public institutions of higher education, as well as the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army. Members of the various branches of the Armed Forces (Army, Navy, US Army Reserve) can pursue training through the Interservice Respiratory Therapy Program (IRTP), which is a comprehensive educational program that prepares enlisted personnel to become qualified respiratory care practitioners.
Also called technical or medical institutes, vocational schools offer career-focused training programs—diploma, certificate, and associate degrees—that allow students to seek entry-level positions of employment after graduation. Respiratory therapy programs at these institutions integrate classwork, laboratory experiences, and clinical practicums to prepare students to quality for the entry-level Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and the subsequent advanced Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) credentialing examinations from the National Board for Respiratory Care.
Unlike vocational schools or technical institutes, community colleges traditionally offer a more extensive selection of academic-focused degree options. In the respiratory therapy fields, community colleges typically provide students with two associate degree tracks, an Associate in Applied Sciences in Respiratory Therapy (AS) and the Associate of Science in Respiratory Therapy (AS). The AAS is a career-oriented professional degree, while the AS is a research-focused degree that can be transferred into a bachelor’s degree program in the future. Both are two- to three-year programs of study that qualify graduates to sit for credential examinations from the National Board for Respiratory Care.
Public and private colleges and universities afford students the opportunity to complete a bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy or care. Generally speaking, four-year institutions provide a more extensive scope of academic curriculum, curriculum that blends a foundational education in the liberal arts with professional coursework in respiratory therapy. Colleges and universities typically have two educational avenues for students—two-year bachelor’s degree completion programs for students with an associate degree and NBRC certifications and four-year bachelor’s degree programs for the first-time professional in respiratory therapy. It’s also important to note that 47 four-year public and private universities offer an associate degree program in respiratory therapy, as well.
For prospective respiratory therapists and experienced RRTs considering a bachelor’s or master’s degree program, there are numerous factors to be considered prior to making a decision including location, cost, clinical practicums available and strength of curriculum. The American Association for Respiratory Care provides an outline of questions students should ask program directors prior to applying. Below is a list of five of the top factors respiratory therapy schools should have.
The Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC) is the primary accrediting body for schools of respiratory therapy. As the accrediting agency, CoARC ensures institutions offering respiratory therapy degree and training programs maintain a national standard of educational quality and achieve their stated learning outcomes. Students should check the university’s or college’s accreditation status via the CoARC prior to applying.
NRBC Examination Success
As noted above, the National Board for Respiratory Care has two certification examinations, the Certified Respiratory Therapist (CRT) and Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT). Prospective students should ask about the institution’s pass rate for both first-time and repeat NRBC test takers. Low passage rates may indicate the respiratory therapist school’s inability to prepare students for real-world success.
Curriculum and Clinical Specializations
Although most curriculum is generalist in nature, there are subspecialties within the field of respiratory care. During clinical rotation, students traditionally have the opportunity to complete internships in an area of interest. Of the total number of clinical practicum hours available, students should investigate the percentage dedicated to specialty areas of practice, such as pediatric critical care, diagnostics (e.g, pulmonary function testing, sleep disorders), home health care, adult general care, etc.
The best programs are dedicated to the success of their students, which encompasses everything from the classroom environment to faculty members, job placement assistance to preparation for post-graduation certification. Prospective students should check the instructor-to-student ratio for classroom-instruction, laboratory instruction and clinical practicums. That information sheds insight into the type of learning experience students will receive. Secondly, the admission, graduation, and job placement rates should not be overlooked. Is the program competitive? Is it graduating students? Are those students finding jobs? Those are very important questions to ask.
In addition to categorizing respiratory therapy school programs into various levels, the CoARC also divides educational programs into degree types and combinations. The three major educational categories include the following:
- Associate of Science (AS)
- Associate in Applied Science (AAS)
- Bachelor of Science (BS)
- Master of Science (MS)
As noted above, the associate degree is the most common educational avenue for registered respiratory therapists, and the total number of degree programs is a reflection of that point. According to CoARC, 85 percent of all accredited degree programs are at the associate degree level, followed by bachelor’s degrees (13 percent).
|Degree Type||CoARC Accredited Programs|
|Associate of Science||215|
|Associate in Applied Science||161|
|Associate in Specialized Technology||3|
|Associate in Occupational Studies||2|
|Bachelor of Science||57|
|Master of Science||3|
A two-year program in respiratory therapy typically results in an Associate in Applied Science (AAS) or Associate of Science (AS) degree. Curriculum is divided between coursework in areas such as respiratory therapy principles, anatomy and physiology, respiratory therapy procedures, laboratory experience and hands-on clinical rotations. Individuals with an associate degree in respiratory therapy are eligible to sit for the CRT certification examination from the National Board for Respiratory Therapists and, subsequently, the RRT certification examination. Additionally, graduates with an Associate of Science can use their degree as a starting point to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the field.
Bachelor’s degrees in respiratory therapy are less common than associate degree programs. They are typically available in two formats: a four-year first-professional degree program and a two-year degree completion format for students who hold an associate degree in respiratory care or science. Generally speaking, universities offer either a Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Care (BSRC) or a Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Therapy (BSRT).Broadly, four-year degree programs are designed for individuals with no prior experience in respiratory care. In turn, curriculum is traditionally split between a pre-professional year of study (general education coursework), followed by three years of professional coursework. In addition, students are required to complete a practicum consisting of several clinical rotations where they apply their classroom-based instruction in acute care settings.
Degree completion programs, known as RRT-to-bachelor degree completion programs, are designed for the registered respiratory therapist seeking to complete a four-year program of study. Aimed at the working professional, most programs credit students for both their completed associate degree coursework and RRT credential. Generally speaking, students must complete between 30-36 credit hours of study, which can be finished in approximately two years. Curriculum concentrates on advanced coursework in respiratory care, ranging from sleep medicine to quality improvement in healthcare, leadership principles to a critical review of respiratory therapy research.
As of 2013, only three universities offered accredited master’s degree programs in respiratory therapy: Rush University, University of Mary and Georgia State University. The goal of each of these degree programs is to prepare graduates to pursue advanced careers as respiratory care practitioners, educators, researchers or experts in a clinical specialization. Divided between knowledge-based and professional clinical training, the curriculum is designed to enhance RRT’s experience in the field, positioning graduates for career advancement opportunities.
Typical day in the life.
Assessing patient’s breathing issues
Analyzing breath or tissue specimens
Providing patient education in smoking cessation
Providing lung or heart function therapy
Supervising respiratory therapy technicians
Maintaining patient records
Monitoring mechanical ventilation devices
Perform chest examinations and assess patient’s breathing capacity
Broadly, graduates of respiratory therapists develop core skills aligned with the scope of practice in respiratory therapy, including: patient assessment, patient data evaluation, therapeutic procedures, equipment manipulation, infection control, patient safety and quality control.
According to O*NET, 83 percent of respiratory therapists hold an associate degree, 12 percent have a bachelor’s degree, and 5 percent have a post-secondary certificate.
Below is a list of resources for prospective respiratory therapists, including lists of accredited programs, state licensing contacts, and information about certifications.
- 19% employment growth projected between 2012 and 2022
- Nearly 23,000 new jobs expected between 2012 and 2022
- $57,880 average salary in 2013
- Outpatient care centers were the highest paying settings in 2013 ($69,860)
- California (38), Pennsylvania (26), Florida (24), Ohio (22), and Georgia (15) have the greatest number of accredited respiratory therapy degree programs
In their day-to-day work, respiratory therapists work under the supervision of physicians to administer respiratory treatments to patients with a range of breathing disorders and illnesses. The traditional scope of practice in the field includes both patient education, direct patient care and clinical decision-making. From establishing therapeutic goals for patients to starting prescribed respiratory care treatments, providing patient education to promoting disease prevention, respiratory therapists have a broad set of responsibilities and complementary knowledge and skill sets. In addition to their general skills and conceptual knowledge, respiratory therapists may also choose to specialize in a number of different areas of care and practice. Three common specialization examples include the following:
Respiratory therapists in this field are responsible for a range of tasks when working with infants, such intubation, attending high-risk deliveries, ventilator management, transporting patients, administering breathing treatments and more.
Caring for children of all ages, pediatric respiratory therapists provide both general (e.g. oxygen therapy, asthma treatment and education, medicated therapy, etc.) and critical care (e.g. ventilation, airway management, medicated aerosol therapy, etc.) to patients.
Respiratory therapists working in pulmonary function are responsible for helping to diagnose, monitor and treat lung diseases. Using a variety of tools and methods, respiratory therapists administer respiratory treatments, conduct diagnostic tests (e.g. cardiopulmonary exercise tests, spirometry) and provide educational services to patients.
In turn, the National Board for Respiratory Care offers several other credential options to trained professionals in the field
Adult Critical Care Specialty Examination (RRT-ACCS)
Launched in 2012, the RRT-ACCS is designed for the experienced RRT working in the field of adult critical care. The examination focuses on the core competencies within the adult critical care setting and not the general practice of respiratory care. To be eligible, candidates must be a Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) with at least one year of professional experience.
Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist (CPFT)
This entry-level examination measures the basic skills and knowledge of pulmonary function technologists. It covers major areas of practice including data management, instrumentation, and diagnostic procedures and includes 115 multiple choice questions.
Neonatal/Pediatric Respiratory Care Specialist (CRT-NPS or RRT-NPS)
This credential is for both Certified Respiratory Therapists (CRT) and RRTs working in neonatal or pediatric care. The 140 multiple-choice test covers three areas: therapeutic procedures, clinical data and equipment.
Registered Pulmonary Function Technologist (RPFT)
A credential for individuals holding the Certified Pulmonary Function Technologist (CPFT) certification, this examination consists of 115 multiple-choice questions that cover data management, diagnostic procedures and equipment.
Sleep Disorders Testing and Therapeutic Intervention Respiratory Care Specialist (CRT-SDS or RRT-SDS)
Created in 2008, this certification is designed for respiratory therapists working with individuals dealing with sleep disorders. In order to be eligible, candidates must either be a CRT or RRT with an accredited degree that includes a sleep disorder add-on track, be a CRT with at least six months experience, or be an RRT with at least three months experience.
Catherine Kenny, PhD, is a graduate of Kent State and holds a graduate certificate from the University of Chicago's respiratory therapy program. She has more than 30 years of experience in higher education and has served as the program director for the respiratory therapy program at Lakeland Community College since 1992. She currently serves as both administrator and professor for the college. A licensed respiratory care practitioner, Dr. Kenny holds a national registry in respiratory care.
Could you discuss current trends and employment opportunities in the field?
Respiratory care is an allied health career with entry at the associate degree level. The field specializes in the care of heart and lungs. Therapists work with patients running the lifespan, from the newborn to the elderly. Practitioners in this profession work under the guidance of a physician in the application of therapies and administration of medications affecting the heart and lungs. I see the profession moving eventually to the bachelor’s degree as the educational minimum for entry to employment as the role becomes increasingly technical. Care will also move to outpatient and home care settings as medicine shifts in that direction.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists physician’s assistant (PA) role as the career ladder for this profession, which is a master’s-level position. Other potential roles include: educators, supervisors and managers, medical marketing sales. We’ve had graduates from our program take positions on heart/lung transplant teams, in vascular labs, as medical research coordinators/assistants, anesthesia assistants, physician assistants and even emergency room physician. We also have an individual that went on to work in medical malpractice as a medical defense lawyer. We have had graduates pursue research and present and publish research internationally.
How does a respiratory degree prepare students for real-world careers?
Students enrolled in respiratory programs spend time in a variety of clinical settings where they work with patients under the guidance of therapist preceptors. Examples of clinical experiences include: basic floor therapies including medication delivery, intensive care rotations where students work with patients on life support equipment, home care visitations for patients on respiratory home care and oxygen, sleep labs, and pulmonary diagnostic laboratories.
They often accept positions within these settings after graduation. Once in a facility they often have the ability to move to various positions depending upon their area of interest, expertise and education. Therapists must continue their education in the profession upon graduation through continuing education. They are also free to pursue additional degrees depending upon their areas of interest.
After graduation, students must complete certification and state licensing requirements in order to practice as respiratory therapists in their state. Below is a discussion of the licensing process and employment trends in respiratory care.
- Certification and Licensure. The practice of respiratory therapy is regulated at the state level, including all states except Alaska. Licensing requirements vary by state, so prospective students should have an understanding of their state’s requirements prior to enrolling in a respiratory therapist training program. Most states require students to be certified by NBRC and at least a two-year degree from an accredited institution. Additionally, many states—such as Louisiana—have shifted away from two licensure categories for respiratory therapists (RRT and CRT), but now only use a single licensure category of Licensed Respiratory Therapist (LRT) or Licensed Respiratory Care Practitioners (RCP).
- Employment Overview. Nationally, respiratory care and therapy is projected to be an in-demand career field, expected to grow by 19 percent between 2012 and 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That increase should produce nearly 23,000 new jobs across the country. At the state level, 15 states should outpace the national average of 19 percent, with Idaho, Texas, and Utah the three states with the largest projected gains. Below is a list of the top ten states with the best projected employment opportunities during that time for respiratory therapists:
Source: Projections Central, 2015
More than 90 percent of respiratory therapists work in the healthcare and social assistance industries and job growth is projected to be strong—at 19.3 percent between 2012 and 2022. Within those industries, the top employment opportunities are expected to be in the following areas:
- Outpatient care centers (59.7%)
- Physical therapy offices (54.3%)
- Ambulatory health care services (46%)
- Health practitioner offices (38.2%)
- Medical and diagnostic laboratories (37.2%)
Students entering the profession need to have a strong
sense of self- motivation. Unlike other health professions, the therapist often works alone with patients and may be in various intensive care units, medical floors and emergency or outpatient clinics throughout a single day. The profession is 24/7 meaning that any individual entering into this line of work will with great probability, work every shift every day of the year over a career life-span.
Mechanical ventilation, or life support, is the application of algebra to pathology and utilizes principles of physics. A solid foundation in math and science is a must. As therapists are independent in the hospital they must be able to communicate with other health professionals. They are also called upon to teach patients how to use various devices and need to be able to communicate effectively.