Comparing the PT and PTA educational tracks in detail

What exactly do we mean by a PTA degree being more cost-effective? Michael Witte, P.T., D.P.T., ATC/L, CSCS, is the PTA Program Director at Clarkson College in Omaha, Neb. He shines a new perspective on the value of educational cost and time in comparing the doctoral degree in PT with an Associate’s degree in PTA.

“While PTs do make a higher wage than PTAs, the prospective student should also consider increased cost of education that comes with the additional five years of schooling for PTs. Depending on if it’s a state school or private institution, the combination of educational cost and lost wages can add up to $270,000–$461,000 difference.”


What is the difference in educational requirements?

To be frank—the difference is quite significant. Current industry standards require all PTs to hold a doctorate (DPT). This means a student must first complete a four-year bachelor’s degree program and then transition into a three-year doctorate program before becoming eligible to sit for the national board exam. “That is seven years of education prior to getting a license and practicing, and that’s only assuming you’re accepted into a DPT program, which are highly competitive,” cautions Dr. Witte. Conversely, the PTA educational track consists of a two-year curriculum that grants an associate’s degree and immediate eligibility to sit for the board exam, gain a state license and start working. “A PTA can then continue on or return to complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree with a variety of options while already earning a living,” denotes Dr. Witte.

How do employment settings differ?

The long and the short of it is that they do not differ at all. A PTA can work in any physical therapy practice setting, such as hospitals, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, pediatrics, industrial rehab, and private practice settings, to name a few.

So, why do some still go the physical therapist route?

If the return on investment does not equate to a better financial outcome, why are some students adamant they earn a PT degree? Dr. Witte provided some additional insight on this matter.

“Some professions that once required a certificate or associate’s degree now look to have individuals complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree education to enter the workforce. This upward trend has stigmatized those degrees remaining at the associate’s level, giving the impression they are less desirable.”

Dr. Witte adds that it sometimes takes getting in front of prospective students and educating them about the financial implications, as well as the overall job scope of PTs and PTAs, for them to decide which route is a better fit. “With the complexity of health care, the time PTs spend with patients has been decreasing since the late 90s, with more duties focused on diagnostics, billing and paperwork,” he says. “For those seeking the prestige that can come with earning a doctorate degree or prefer performing evaluations and setting care plans rather than working with patients directly, a PT track may be most suitable; for those looking to start a career in less time, and with less student debt, the PTA career track is more efficient and includes a larger percentage of time spent in direct patient care.”

Having all of this information in your back pocket, what if you’re still unsure if the PT or PTA track is best for you?

To help answer this question, Dr. Witte uses the analogy of patients providing informed consent to doctors, which signifies they are fully aware of all possible consequences of a particular health care intervention and can make a thought-out decision based on their individual situation. “In our program at Clarkson College, it is our belief prospective students should weigh all of the options and base their decision on the factors that are important to them,” says Dr. Witte. “We recommend doing some job shadowing of both professions for a first-hand look at what a ‘day-in-the-life’ entails. If direct patient care, an eagerness to begin working in the field and cost of education are all important factors, becoming a PTA would be the most suitable option. Ultimately, however, the world needs both professions, and every student should be able to make an informed, confident decision about the route he or she chooses.”


OOH FAQs: Occupational Outlook Handbook. (2016). Retrieved from