Understanding Online DPT Programs

Earning a doctor of physical therapy online can be a great way for those in the PT field to enhance their career and earning prospects without disrupting their busy day-to-day schedule as a practicing physical therapist or PT assistant.

Written by

PhDs.me Staff

Last updated

Feb 09, 2021

Physical therapists work closely with people of all ages to help them overcome injuries or illnesses through improving their movement and helping them manage pain. While some existing physical therapists have a master’s degree, people entering the field to become a licensed physical therapist must earn the DPT. Choosing to earn the doctor of physical therapy online means you can continue working and building your PT skill set and experience while gaining the expertise to fully move into a career as a physical therapist

The future is bright for physical therapists. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 18% projected job growth for physical therapists from 2019 to 2029. This is much faster than average for all occupations. Much of that growth is due to baby boomers who are more active at an advanced age, prevalent chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes that can lead to physical problems, and a higher demand for rehabilitative care after heart attacks, strokes, or other medical events.

But where should I get that education? Which online program is right for me? How much will it cost? How long will it take?

We’ll tackle these questions and more in this guide. If you want to work in the booming healthcare field or are looking to elevate your career from a PT assistant or aide to a physical therapist, pursuing a doctor of physical therapy online degree can help ensure you obtain the career you’re reaching for.

Best Online DPT Programs for 2021

When you’re choosing the best online DPT program for you, look for a program that suits your educational needs as well as your personal schedule and career goals. We’ve taken a good look at the online DPT programs and considered several factors that are likely important to you, including accreditation, tuition, class size, and flexibility. Take a look at these three spotlight schools, which give you a good idea of what to expect from the best programs out there.

USC Online

The USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy offers the hybrid doctor of physical therapy program. This full-time, three-year program takes 115 credits to complete. It is considered hybrid because though most courses can be taken online, there are immersive experiences students are expected to complete at the Los Angeles campus. Students are required to make 10 visits to the USC campus over the span of three years, totaling about 60 days on campus. However, the rest of clinical hours can be completed at a location convenient to the student. With a 12-to-1 student-faculty ratio, this program ensures close contact with professors and peers, thus providing a strong foundation for those who need extra help.

  • Rather than paying by the credit, students pay a flat fee of $72,189 for the first and second years and $43,615 for the third year. Additional fees also apply.

Arcadia University

The fully online doctor of physical therapy program at Arcadia University boasts Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) accreditation and a 100% pass rate on the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), the test required to become licensed as a physical therapist. The program must be completed through full-time work and takes 25 months to finish. Students will take live online classes, both in synchronous and asynchronous format, complete 32 weeks of clinical rotations, and engage in eight short immersion experiences on campus.

  • There is one cohort per year, beginning in August, that kicks off this 110-credit program.
  • Tuition costs $18,640 per semester (6 semesters total).

Tufts University School of Medicine

The accelerated, hybrid education model of the doctor of physical therapy at Tufts University uses a blend of face-to-face live class sessions, virtual learning strategies, and blended immersive events on campus to prepare students for their path after graduation. Completion of the two-year program requires a service-learning project and interprofessional educational activities with other programs in the Tufts School of Medicine. The program meets the licensure requirements for physical therapists in all 50 states.

  • Students can opt for clinical training lasting 31 weeks at three different sites nationwide or can opt for a 23-week internship option.
  • Tuition is charged by the semester rather than by the credit. The cost is $18,334 per semester. Technology and other fees are also charged.

Benefits of Earning Your DPT Online

Choosing to earn your doctor of physical therapy online comes with numerous advantages that go well beyond potential time and money savings. The flexibility can be a huge draw, as can the ability to customize your degree. Let’s take a look at a few of the benefits of earning your DPT online:

1

Potentially lower cost.
In addition to the lack of a commute, which is an automatic money-saver, there’s also the fact that many schools charge a flat rate for online students or allow students to take courses at the in-state rate, no matter where they live. This can cut thousands on the cost of tuition. In addition, you may save on supplies like textbooks, which may be online, and parking or gym fees, since as an online student, you aren’t using those services.

2

Convenience for busy schedules.
Many programs can be completed in three years, but some schools allow you to extend you program if necessary. Perhaps you want to take one class at a time or attend part-time. However, keep in mind that some programs cap how many years you can be in the program, so make sure all your requirements are done by the time dictated by the school and/or program.

Online learning is a boon for those who want to grow their career opportunities but don’t have the time to sit in a traditional classroom. The more popular online learning becomes, the more options you’ll have among schools that offer the DPT. But it’s important to understand the reality of how online education really works.

Types of Online DPT Programs

Professions like physical therapy require a great deal of hands-on work, and as such, the doctoral program in physical therapy will require some hands-on training — this is true even if you’re taking “fully online” courses. How much you have to do, and where you can do, it depends upon the program. That’s why it’s so important to research the programs you’re interested in to determine if their requirements will align with your busy schedule. Here are the two types of online programs you might encounter:

Fully online

These programs are designed for working professionals who want to earn their DPT online but don’t want to forgo their current work experience in order to immerse themselves in a traditional classroom setting. Fully online means that the vast majority of work for the program will be completed virtually. You will handle papers, projects, assignments, and interactions with fellow students and faculty through online means.

However, there are some elements that might require you to visit campus. These intensive immersive sessions often last for a few days and occur every semester. This allows you to practice your skills among your cohort and faculty. In addition, you might be required to present a capstone project or other program-end project for evaluation, and that might be required to happen in person. Clinical work requirements can often be completed at a location near where you live.

Blended/hybrid

These programs are for students attending a college a bit closer to home, as some of the courses might be taken in a physical location. Many blended programs allow for some online courses but structure others to be held at night or during the weekend to enable students with busy schedules to get their degree. Clinical work requirements can often be completed at your current place of employment, or you might be required to complete those in a clinical setting where you can be supervised by faculty.

Timeline: Doctorate of Physical Therapy Online

In most cases, a full-time student can complete the DPT online in about three years. There are fast-track options in which accelerated coursework leads to the DPT in two years. Conversely, there is the option of spreading out the classes, taking one at a time, and essentially going to school part-time. Part-time study means the program could take four years or more, depending upon what the program allows. Not all programs allow part-time study. Here’s the typical timeline for a three-year program.

Year
1

During this year, you’ll begin with foundational courses in anatomy, physiology, professional ethics, examination and evaluation, clinical skills, and study of disorders that can lead to a need for physical therapy. Your clinical rotations might begin this year as well. You’ll spend time with your academic advisor formulating a plan to be certain you will stay on track for graduation.

Year
2

This year will dive deep into more advanced courses, including those in cardiopulmonary disorders, neuroscience, diagnostic imaging, rehabilitation, working with certain populations (such as pediatric or geriatric patients), and prosthetics. Your clinical work will be heightened during this year, and you might also be working on the capstone or other required project, especially if you came into the program with a master’s degree. For some, this will be their final year.

Year
3

Though there might be some classes during this year, especially if you began you work as a bachelor’s degree holder, your main focus will be clinical work. You’ll complete all the hours required for graduation, pass any examinations, present any projects, or otherwise wrap up your studies. At the end of this year, your school should have prepared you to sit for the examination to become a physical therapist.

Each online DPT program is different; one might have certain requirements that another doesn’t, and one might offer electives that you can’t find at other schools. It’s important to study each program’s curriculum to ensure it meets your career goals. If you’re not sure, talk to an academic advisor at the school to ensure you’re getting exactly what you need from your education.

Online DPT Learning Outcomes

No matter which online DPT program you choose, there will be some elements that are the same in all programs. Physical therapists who hold the doctor of physical therapy degree must have a highly specialized base of knowledge and skills, and each DPT program is dedicated to ensuring students have those important elements upon graduation. While each program might have a different structure, different course names, and even different requirements for how you get your clinical hours, the learning outcomes will be similar across the board. Here are some of the crucial learning outcomes you should expect to receive in a DPT program.

1

Good communication.
Written and oral communication is absolutely critical for any healthcare professional, but it can be especially pertinent for physical therapists, who must instruct their patients on the best way to perform exercises and continue care at home. This might take the form of writing out instructions, drawing pictures, explaining complicated concepts in simple language, and more.

2

Informed decision making.
When faced with a new patient, a physical therapist will need to look at the patient’s history, their current situation, what they can handle in the form of exercise and movement, and make informed decisions based on the information they have.

3

Professional and ethical behavior.
This is an essential learning objective of any healthcare profession, and it’s emphasized in the DPT program also. The standards of professional and ethical behavior include interactions, behavior, and communications with patients, staff, other PTs, and other in the healthcare profession.

4

Critical thinking and reasoning.
What if a certain exercise regimen isn’t working? What if a patient suddenly takes a turn for the worse? Critical thinking about the exercises and movements a patient is doing, and reasoning about their situation in the clinic, hospital rehabilitation facility, or even at home, can help you create new paths for them that will result in improvement.

5

Strong collaborative relationship skills.
Physical therapists work closely with patients, but they also work with care teams consisting of doctors, nurses, therapists of all kinds, family members, and others who might care for the patient. It’s important to be able to collaborate across many areas in order to ensure the best outcome for the patient.

Specialization in Physical Therapy: Where Should You Devote Your Energy?

Physical therapy can be useful for patients of all ages, from older folks who have suffered illness or injury to newborns who need help working with their large motor skills well before they are able to even roll over. Such a wide range of patients with a large variety of needs means that physical therapists can specialize in what interests them. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties recognizes 10 specialty areas in physical therapy, including:

Geriatrics

This specialty enables physical therapists work with the unique needs of the elderly. This includes issues with mobility after a stroke or surgery as well as finding pain relief from arthritis or other issues.

Oncology

Going through cancer treatment can take a toll on the body and require work to get strong again. Physical therapists can help patients with cancer learn how to move in new ways to accommodate the changes in their bodies after surgeries or treatments.

Wound Management

To help ensure a wound has the time and space to heal, a PT patient might need to learn to move in a different way or use devices to keep from disturbing the wound. The physical therapist can create a plan for this.

Sports

Injuries are an unfortunate common fact of sports, and physical therapists are there to help ensure a person heals properly and does the proper things necessary to get back on the field or court without risking further injury.

Pediatrics

The growth stages of children matter a great deal when receiving physical therapy. It’s important to ensure that the exercises and motions are tailored closely to the child’s abilities and goals while taking into account that what they need can change quickly as they grow.

Accreditation & Online DPT Programs

When seeking out the best DPT program, either online or on campus, it’s important to look at the accreditation status of the school or program. Accreditation means the school or program has been evaluated by an independent accrediting body and found to meet the high standards of a quality education.

There are two main types of accreditation: regional and programmatic. Regional accreditation is earned by a school as a whole. Most school websites will make their accreditation status clear, but if you’re uncertain whether a school has earned accreditation, you can find out for sure through the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. While the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t directly accredit schools, it does oversee the accrediting bodies responsible for accreditation at the institutional level.

Programmatic accreditation, also called professional accreditation, focuses on the program itself. When choosing an accredited online doctor in physical therapy program, it’s important to make sure it has earned accreditation through the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). This helps ensure your DPT program meets the standards necessary for your degree to be taken seriously in your field.

Applying to a DPT Program Online

When applying to a doctoral program, you’ll see certain things across applications, no matter the subject. Most schools will ask for your GPA from previous college work, letters of recommendation, a written essay or personal statement, and more. When it comes to earning the doctor of physical therapy online, your program might require you to use the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS). This allows you to use one application process to apply to several physical therapy programs at once. Some schools will look for certain points in that application, including:

Prerequisite courses

There will be some courses, such as anatomy, physiology, general psychology, chemistry, introductory statistics, and the like that must be completed and passed with at least a minimum GPA before your application will be considered.

Exam scores

Some schools require the GRE or the GMAT in order to apply. These scores must be within a certain percentile in order for a school to consider your application. Some schools might not require these tests, but instead will require placement tests, where the school will test you to decide which courses you need to begin with when you enroll.

Hours verification

Some programs require you to have a certain amount of clinical experience or observation hours; a verification of those hours will be necessary in order to proceed with enrollment. This matters because those coming into the program need to already have a firm grasp of physical therapy practice.

Tuition & Fees

Any DPT program is going to be a large financial undertaking, but online learning might save you a bit of money. That’s because tuition might be offered at a flat rate for online students, or you might be able to pay in-state tuition, which can be much lower than the cost of out-of-state tuition. There are also the more practical considerations, such as the lack of a commute, no parking fees and no facility fees, though you’ll need to have the most up-to-date technology including a laptop and a good internet connection.

Let’s take a look at some tuition figures you might encounter when seeking your doctor of physical therapy online program.

SchoolCost per CreditTotal CreditsSubtotal
University of Colorado$548116$63,568
Texas Woman’s University$55398$54,194
University of Illinois Chicago$414122$50,508
University of Kentucky$464137$63,568

Note: Keep in mind that the “sticker price” of tuition is not necessarily the bottom line. There are ways to bring that number down, including scholarships, grants, fellowships, tuition reimbursement programs, employer reimbursement, and more. Because there are so many potential ways to change that bottom line, never hesitate to reach out to a financial aid advisor and learn about the options available for your particular situation. You can also check out our guide to scholarships and grants to see what’s available and how to apply.

Salaries for Doctorate of PT Earners

If you’re a PT assistant thinking of earning your DPT, you’ll want to see these numbers. Physical therapists with a DPT made an average of $71,176, according to Payscale.com, while PT assistants made a bit over $50,000 on average per year. Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a potential higher salary for physical therapists of up to $124,740 for top earners. While it’s important to remember that earning a degree is not a guarantee for a specific job title or salary, PayScale reports the following salaries and job titles for professionals who have earned the doctorate in physical therapy.

Job TitleMedian Earnings90th Percentile Salary
Clinical Director, PT$83,000$101,000
Rehabilitation Director$90,000$114,000
Lead Physical Therapist$80,000$99,000