Finding Online Physical Therapy Assistant (PTA) Programs

Discover top schools, learn program details, and read cost and accreditation info on today’s online physical therapist assistant programs

NOTE: Although most colleges use “physical therapist assistant programs”, most potential students search online for “physical therapy assistant programs”. We’ve used both on this page to serve each audience.

A physical therapist assistant, or PTA, is a trained professional that provides physical therapy services under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist. PTAs work with patients who have health conditions that limit their ability to move and perform normal daily activities and functions. Does that sound like a career you might be interested in? If so, you’ll need to earn an associate degree from an accredited PTA program. There are currently ~350 such programs available throughout the United States, mostly on community and technical college campuses. But there are also dozens of fully-accredited online PTA programs out there for students who – due to work, family, or other obligations – simply can’t afford the time it takes to attend class on a traditional campus. The following guide discusses PTA programs with online elements, including what to look for, how to find the best ones, and what it takes to apply, enroll, and graduate.

Why Enroll in an Online PTA Program?

Earning a PTA degree through distance learning has a number of important advantages over the traditional on-campus format. Three of the biggest are:

  • Decreased Cost
    Tuition costs and program fees for online degree programs are oftentimes less than for their on-campus counterparts, although in a few cases they may be more. Regardless, students are likely to enjoy decreased costs overall when studying online, saving money on travel to and from campus (gas, parking fees, etc.) and other items, like paying for a babysitter.
  • Personal Pace
    Most programs allow students to access their online classes at times of their own convenience and complete coursework at their own pace.
  • No Commute
    Along with the cost savings in gas and wear on your vehicle, studying online means no commuting to campus, freeing up time better spent on more important things – like your family and friends.

So, how do you find the right online PTA program for you? Keep reading to learn all about the best online PTA schools and programs available today.

Today’s Best Online Physical Therapy Assistant Programs

The right online education program for any student is the one that best aligns with his or her particular needs, such as work and family obligations, as well as things like ultimate career goals and study preferences. To help begin your PTA program search, we’ve compiled a list of what we believe to be the best online PTA programs currently out there, based on a number of factors that any program you consider should meet, including curriculum comprehensiveness, affordability, convenience and flexibility, and more.  We’ve started with three great programs to help you get a clear idea of the education journey ahead.

Whatcom-Community-College

Whatcom Community College, located in Bellingham, Washington, offers an online/hybrid Associate of Science PTA degree that can be completed with nine quarters (two years plus one quarter) of part-time study, following completion of general education coursework. The program consists of fully-online lecture courses, on-campus labs and clinical experiences, and an in-person clinical affiliation. Students have the option of completing their lab sections on either WCC’s Bellingham campus or one of two Pierce College campuses in the South Puget Sound area. Labs require on-campus attendance approximately one weekend per month. The clinical affiliation requirement is split between the final two quarters of study, and completed at an approved facility in the student’s home area. Students should expect to devote 20 to 30 hours per week on homework assignments in addition to their regular coursework.

Students must complete 27 credits of general education coursework with a minimum 2.3 GPA prior to beginning work on the 84-credit PTA core curriculum. Individuals with a previously-earned bachelor’s degree or transfer degree earned in Washington State may be able to use that degree to satisfy the PTA program’s general education prerequisites.

Tuition cost is $113.59 per credit for Washington State residents and $291.1 for non-residents. The estimated per quarter cost for this program (including tuition, fees, books, and supplies) for Washington State residents is $1,510. WCC’s PTA program is accredited by the CAPTE. (More on accreditation below.)

What to Look for in an Online Physical Therapist Assistant School

In addition to the elements discussed above, any PTA program you consider should meet the following foundational qualifications:

  • Accreditation
    Of foremost importance for any PTA program is accreditation. Proper accreditation assures students that their program meets or exceeds foundational standards of quality. It’s also something that employers weigh heavily when assessing the qualifications of potential hires. In the U.S., entry-level PTA programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).
  • NPTE Pass Rates:
    Working as a physical therapist assistant in the U.S. requires state licensure, and licensure in all 50 states requires passing the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). Therefore, potential PTA students may want to consider first those programs with higher NPTE pass rates for their graduates. Information on PTA program pass rates can often be found on program websites. If not, you can access them from this Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) webpage.
  • Quality In-Person Training: 
    All online PTA programs include some form of clinical practicum/internship component that must be completed in-person. If possible, consider those programs that provide access to quality clinical facilities near your home, and at times that best fit your schedule. Clinical practicum/internship components normally require full-time participation, but some programs may offer the flexibility of part-time attendance.

The In’s-and-Out’s of Online PTA Programs

Online college degree programs are nothing new. They’ve been around now for more than two decades. Nevertheless, earning a degree through distance learning is still a brand new experience to anyone who hasn’t done if before. If that’s you, then it’s crucial to your academic success that you gain a solid understanding of the online education process – as well as the specific requirements of any PTA degree program you’re considering – before you sign up. Here are some of the details:

Hands-on Training

The first important thing to know is that, like most online education programs in the medical field, you will be able to complete most of your basic coursework (lectures, reading, written assignments, etc.) online. However, all online PTA programs also include substantial in-person participation in the form of on-campus lab sessions and clinical experiences, and clinical practicums or internships at off-campus physical therapy facilities. This is to be expected since, by its very nature, physical therapy training requires hands-on practice.

The PTA Associate Degree

The career path of any physical therapist assistant career in the U.S. begins with earning a PTA associate degree. Generally speaking, most associate degrees are earned with two years of full-time study through an online or traditional campus-based community or technical college program. Two years is also the length of many traditional on-campus PTA degree programs. Online PTA degree programs, however, typically take a bit more time. This is particularly true of part-time programs that call for up to three years or more to complete all general education and PTA coursework, as well as all hands-on practicum requirements.

Course Structure for Online PTA Programs

All online PTA degree programs are hybrid programs, that is, they consist of a combination of online and in-person study components. However, it’s not uncommon for PTA programs to offer some specific courses in a fully-online format, and others in a format that combines online lectures, and reading and writing assignments, with on-campus labs and clinical experiences.

The bulk of online coursework is presented asynchronously, meaning that students can access course materials at anytime, and complete assignments at their own pace. It’s this flexibility in study that makes distance learning such a great choice for students with busy work schedules or significant family obligations. There may be times, however, when students are required to log in and attend a live streamed lecture or related event at a specific time.

Paying for an Online Physical Therapy Assistant Program

Going after a college degree, even an associate degree, can be expensive. In fact, cost is often the biggest barrier faced by prospective students. Fortunately, PTA students have access to the same financial aid options as anyone else:

Scholarships and Grants

Scholarships and grants have the great advantage of not having to be paid back. The problem is that many students never bother to consider scholarships or grants because they assume there’s no chance of qualifying for them. The truth is, though, that there are organizations out there that sponsor scholarships and grants specifically for PTA students, and many awards are earmarked for students with particular backgrounds (low income, members of a minority group, etc.). For example, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) sponsors a number of scholarships specifically for PTA students, three of which are awarded to minority group members. Additionally, there are dozens of scholarships and grants that are non-PTA specific, but nonetheless open to PTA students.

There are several good online search engines for locating scholarship and grant opportunities, including Peterson’s, Unigo, Scholarship Monkey, and Scholarships.org, among many others. Be sure to try them all.

Student Loans

Student loans are the most common form of financial aid for college. Student loan sources include state governments and private funds, but the bulk of loans are made through the federal government.   Access to all federal student loans, as well as many scholarships, grants, and work-study jobs, requires filling out and submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.

Visit EduMed’s Pay Less for Education: How to Take Charge of Your Financial Aid for more on student financial aid opportunities.

Getting Licensed as a Physical Therapist Assistant

As mentioned earlier, you can’t practice as a physical therapist assistant in the U.S. without a license. Licensure of PTAs is handled by regulatory agencies in each individual state, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Specific licensure requirements and procedures vary by jurisdiction, but all mandate that applicants pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) to be licensed. Other requirements may include such items as a criminal background check, CPR certification, and payment of a license application processing fee. Some states additionally require applicants to be at least 18 years of age. Also, licensure is good only within the jurisdiction that issues it, so PTAs who work in more than one state, or are planning to move to a new state, must obtain the proper license for that jurisdiction before starting practice. PTA students are advised to become familiar with the licensure process in their jurisdiction as early as possible.

About the NPTE

The NPTE for PTAs is a computer-administered exam that consists of 200 multiple choice questions. The exam is given four times a year on specific dates and must be taken at one of the many Prometric test centers located throughout the United States. The test need not be taken in the test taker’s chosen practice jurisdiction. Test takers have up to five hours to complete the exam. Test scores range from 200 to 800, with 600 as the minimum passing score. The exam may be repeated consecutively up to three times, and up to six times in total. The current cost for taking the exam is $485.00. Administration of the NPTE is supervised by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBTP). Detailed exam information is available on this APTA webpage, and full exam eligibility requirements can be found here.

There’s a wealth of exam preparation materials available, a few of which can be gotten for a nominal price or even free-of-charge. Contact your school’s library or bookstore for prep material availability, or check out this APTA resource list.  

What You’ll Learn in PTA School

Working as a PTA requires a surprisingly broad foundation of knowledge and hands-on skills, all of which will be covered in any quality PTA degree program. Didactic PTA core coursework – typically presented online – will include study in a number of relevant subjects, such as anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, clinical pathology, communication, ethics, neuroscience, and more. Hands-on skills are those that PTA students develop during the in-person components of their degree program (labs, clinicals, practicums, internships) while working directly with patients under the direction of instructors, doctors, and practicing physical therapists.

Below is look at some of the most important qualities and skills students develop in their PTA degree programs. Keep in mind that these skills are meant to ensure competence in professional practice, but more immediately, they prepare the student for passing the NPTE.  

Knowledge Gained through Online Coursework

Anatomy and Kinesiology:
A strong, foundational understanding of the human anatomy – particularly the skeletal, muscular, cardiovascular, nervous, integumentary, and endocrine systems – is crucial to physical therapy practice. Closely related to anatomy, kinesiology concerns human body movement, focusing specifically on the biomechanical, physiological, and psychological principles and mechanisms of movement. PTA students should expect comprehensive coverage of both topics in their coursework.

Exercise Physiology: 
Covering some of the same basic ground as anatomy and kinesiology, but related specifically to the physiology of the human body during exercise. Emphasis is placed on the neuromuscular and cardiopulmonary systems, as well as the metabolic processes involved in the production and storage of energy as it applies to acute and chronic exercise.  Pathological conditions relevant to exercise and physical therapy practice are included.

Communication: 
PTAs spend the majority of their workday interacting with clients, physical therapists, doctors, medical staff, and others. PTAs must be able to receive information from all of these sources and competently record that information in written form for later use by themselves and others. Superior communications skills are, therefore, a must. Communication topics covered in coursework include oral comprehension and expression, speech clarity, written comprehension, and writing competency.

Skills Learned During Hands-on Training

Patient Treatment: 
This is the real “hands-on” part of the physical therapist assistant’s job. PTAs not only teach their patients specific stretches and exercises as part of their plans of care, they also help patients perform those stretches and exercises during treatment sessions. PTAs additionally perform a variety of massage techniques on patients as part of treatment. PTAs also instruct patients in the use of various types of rehabilitation and exercise equipment, as well as assistive devices like walkers and crutches.

Patient Diagnosis and Evaluation: 
Through observation and testing, and under the direct supervision of physical therapists, PTAs help diagnose the movements and functions of their patients, and assist in the development of plans of care. PTAs are also responsible for observing their patients before, during, and after treatment in order to evaluate and report on patient status and progress to the supervising physical therapist.  

Compassion: 
As much a personal quality as a skill. Compassion can be defined as the consciousness of the pain of others, and the desire to help alleviate that pain. Compassion for the suffering of one’s patients, along with the equally-important quality of patience, must be at the very core of every PTA’s professional practice.

Career Growth, Salary & Outlook for Physical Therapist Assistants

You’ve taken a look at what physician therapist assistants do and it sounds like something you might be interested in. You’ve got a pretty clear idea of what you need to do in terms of education, training, and licensure to get a PTA career going. But what can you expect from your PTA career once you’re in it? A great source of career information for PTAs – or any other career, for that matter – is the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). And according to the BLS, the job market and expected career growth for PTAs moving forward is quite encouraging, with an estimated increase in PTA employment of 31% between 2016 and 2026. That’s excellent, especially when compared to the expected job growth for healthcare occupations overall (18%) and all occupations in general (7%) for the same time period.

How Much Do Physical Therapist Assistants Make?

How much any individual earns as a PTA will depend on a number of factors, including geographic location, the type of facility in which they’re employed, and length of time in practice. The tables below offer an earnings snapshot for PTAs in the U.S. using the most recent (May 2018) BLS statistics.

National Wage Estimates: Mean PTA hourly and annual wage estimates by percentile:

Percentile 10% 25% 50% (Median) 75% 90%
Hourly $16.24 $22.50 $27.91 $33.03 $38.37
Annual $33,780 $46,800 $58,040 $68,700 $79,810

Estimated Wages by Industry: Mean PTA hourly and annual wage estimates in the industries with the five highest levels of PTA employment (ranked by employment level):

Industry Hourly Wage Annual Wage
Offices of Other Health Practitioners $27.02 $56,210
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals $26.50 $55,120
Nursing Care Facilities $31.40 $65,320
Home Health Care Services $31.06 $64,600
Physicians’ Offices $25.38 $52,800

Estimated Wages by State: Mean PTA hourly and annual wage estimates for the five states with the highest PTA employment (ranked by employment level):

State Hourly Wage Annual Wage
Texas $33.60 $69,890
Florida $29.64 $61,650
Ohio $28.24 $58,740
Pennsylvania $26.01 $54,100
California $30.87 $64,210

What Are the Career Advancement Opportunities for PTAs?

According to the APTA, the vast majority of working physical therapist assistants remain with that career choice within the field of physical therapy, moving up in the profession (and earning more money) by pursuing advanced knowledge and skills in a variety of specialized interests, such as administration and management, education, clinical work, and others. Some choose to obtain the APTA’s PTS Advanced Proficiency Pathways (APP) credential to evidence their advanced professional knowledge and skills. Earning the APP credential requires completion of a series of APTA courses, area-specific proficiency knowledge and skills checks, and mentored clinical experiences with skills checks.

A small percentage (approximately 10%) of PTAs will return to school to obtain a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) and become physical therapists. PTs review patients’ medical histories, diagnose patients’ physical movements and functions, and evaluate patient progress.  They further provide many of the same hands-on therapies as PTAs and supervise PTA treatment of patients. PTs typically earn substantially more than PTAs, with the BLS estimating a mean annual wage of $87,930 for physical therapists nationally.

Career advancement as a PTA may also mean a change in practice setting, geographic location, or practice focus:

  • Practice Setting:
    Along with the different industries listed above in the estimated wages table, PTAs can find jobs in places such as rehabilitation centers, sports training facilities and fitness centers, schools, and more. And with our ever-aging population, PTAs are likely to find increasing job opportunities in treatment settings for the elderly, like skilled-nursing homes and outpatient orthopedic facilities, as well as in the home health field.
  • Geographic Location:
    Employment prospects should be particularly good in rural areas of the country, given the higher concentration of PTAs in urban and suburban communities.
  • Practice Focus:
     PTAs seeking to move out of clinical practice may want to consider occupation-related non-clinical positions in areas like teaching, utilization review, job recruiting, sales, and marketing.