Expert review by: Renee Leuschke, MSOT, Registered & Licensed
Occupational therapists help patients who face new and sometimes difficult circumstances related to illness, injury, or disability. They may help patients learn or regain day-to-day skills, or develop entirely news ones to manage new situations. Occupational therapists are in high demand given their specialized skills and the critical treatment they provide.
This demand has lead to an increase in formal training opportunities for occupational therapists and occupational therapist assistants. Coupled with the overall growth of online learning across all of higher education, and a number of partially online occupational therapy programs have emerged. Before rushing to apply or enroll, however, it’s important to do your homework: which schools offer a quality and affordable education, which programs have the proper accreditation, and, most important, what do you need personally to make your educational journey a success? Read on to see the best schools, take a peek at OT curricula, and see what it takes to graduate and land your first position as a licensed occupational therapist.
Earning Your Occupational Therapy Degree Online
Earning an occupational therapy degree online can have numerous advantages over the traditional on-campus program. While online learning isn’t perfect for everyone, it has benefits that are pretty hard to beat for some.
Of course there are also some challenges to choosing an online program. Here are some of the issues you might face:
Now that you’ve seen the pros and cons, let’s take a look at how online programs for occupational therapy work.The vast majority of online occupational therapy programs are in a hybrid format, with both online courses and in-person requirements. The ratio between online and in-person requirements will vary among online programs. At the very least, an online program will require you to complete roughly a semester’s worth of fieldwork credits to complete their degree and be eligible to sit for the national licensing exam.
Where you obtain the field experience also depends on the specific program you choose to attend. Most programs have established arrangements with certain facilities or allow students to choose an “outside” facility as long as it meets certain requirements.
When looking for an online occupational therapy program, there are numerous options at various levels. But not all of these lead to licensure. Read on to better understand the degree paths available to you.
Online OT Degree Programs by Level
There’s no single route to becoming a licensed occupational therapist. Some people complete an occupational therapy assistant program online (or on campus) before pursuing graduate studies, while others use a bachelor’s degree as their stepping stone. Whichever your path, it’s important to know what to expect if you have visions of graduate-level work in the field. Let’s take a closer look at the master’s and doctoral degree options in occupational therapy to see which path makes the most sense for you.
Core OT Knowledge & Skills
The specific skills and knowledge an occupational therapist must know to treat patients will be conveyed through a reputable program. The level of familiarity with certain skills and information will grow as you get more advanced training. Regardless of which degree you’re earning, you can expect to learn the following skills, all of which will be useful in the occupational therapy setting.
Accreditation, Financial Aid, and Licensing
The occupational therapy profession is highly regulated, and part of that regulation requires that students graduate from an accredited program. This accreditation allows students to receive financial aid and become licensed by the relevant statute licensing authorities. The accrediting authority for occupational therapy programs is the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE).
The ACOTE is the accrediting body of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). AOTA is the leading professional association representing occupational therapists and occupational therapy students in training. AOTA works to promote the professional and academic interests of those in the occupational therapy field.
ACOTE is recognized by both the US Department of Education as well as the Council for Higher Education (CHEA). It accredits more than 400 programs in the United States and its territories. ACOTE ensures that graduates of accredited programs have the necessary level of knowledge and training to treat patients as effectively, safely and ethically as possible.
When accrediting a program, ACOTE will look for a variety of factors at the school, such as inclusion of both classroom and fieldwork training, acquisition of foundational knowledge in scientific subjects and principles, familiarity with diversity issues, awareness of various forms of treatment models, the ability to develop treatment models to address many different types of patient issues and possession of effective interpersonal skills to communicate with patients and colleagues.
Why Is Accreditation Important?
Accreditation is a process in which a third party reviews a school or program and certifies that it meets certain minimum education requirements. Accreditation is critical when enrolling in any program, regardless of what academic credential you are looking to earn. There are two primary reasons to apply to and attend only an accredited program.
First, the accreditation ensures you will receive a quality education that is recognized by others, such as certifying bodies, government agencies, other occupational therapy programs and future employers. For example, to sit for the national licensing exam, applicants must graduate from an accredited occupational therapy program.
Second, accreditation is required for most forms of financial aid. Practically all government and private sources of financial aid will require application to or enrollment in an accredited school or program as a condition for the awarding of financial aid. By attending a school that’s not accredited, you are almost guaranteeing that you won’t be able to get any financial aid to help pay for your education.
To ensure you’re getting the high-quality education you deserve, make sure to vet any program before enrolling.
Do Occupational Therapists Need a License?
Getting a master’s degree in occupational therapy is not quite enough to become registered and start treating patients: all 50 states require occupational therapists to become licensed before they start practicing. Each state has its own requirements for licensure, but they all require taking and passing the National Board of Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) examination.
To be eligible to sit for the NBCOT exam, occupational therapists must graduate from an accredited occupational therapy program and finish all fieldwork requirements. Additional requirements for licensing may include completing and submitting a state-specific license application, paying an application fee, and registering for the exam. The exam registration fee, as of 2019, is $515 online, and $555 via paper application. Exam applications are valid for three months. To learn more about what is required in your state, check with your state licensing board.
Careers & Salaries for Occupational Therapists
With more people expected to require medical services in the foreseeable future, most healthcare professions are expected to grow much faster than the national average. The occupational therapist profession is no different. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that from 2016 to 2016, the growth rate for occupational therapists will be 24 percent. This is more than three times what the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects for all occupations over the same time period.
One major reason for this significant need for occupational therapists is the growing number of people who can afford medical care now that millions have been able to obtain health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. A second major reason is due to an aging population. As Americans get older, there will be a much larger demand for professionals who can help these individuals maintain independent living arrangements or acquire skills that allow them to continue to work or simply live their everyday lives.
The growth rate of occupational therapists from 2016 to 2026 is also significantly higher than that of registered nurses (15 percent), one of the most in-demand healthcare professions in the country right now. However, the occupational therapist growth rate is in line with several similar professions, including occupational therapist aides and assistants (28 percent) and physical therapists (28 percent).
Most of these new jobs will be in either a private practice or hospital setting. Approximately half of all occupational therapists work in these two types of healthcare facilities.
What Do Salaries for Occupational Therapists Look Like?
Occupational therapists have the opportunity to make a very comfortable living. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual salary for an occupational therapist is $83,200. Those working at the lower pay ranges (10th percentile) can still make a decent annual salary of $54,560. And occupational therapists lucky enough to be in the 90th percentile will make $120,440, on average. Keep in mind these numbers are based on a variety of factors, including experience, work setting, specialization and geographical location.
Still interested in working in the occupational therapy field? There are multiple program pathways to consider. Depending on your personal and professional needs, you may want a mostly online program, if available. You may want an undergraduate degree so you can begin working in the industry as quickly as possible as an aide or assistant. For those who wish to become a fully licensed occupational therapist, a master’s level program will be a necessity. To learn more about your educational options, visit our full page on How to Become an Occupational Therapist to get started.