Applying to physical therapy programs at institutions of higher learning has been and remains a very competitive process. The most common pathway to a physical therapy degree consists of obtaining a four-year undergraduate degree followed by applying to and completing a three year Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program at an accredited institution.

Early assurance

A less common pathway to a DPT degree is via an “Early Assurance” program.  Early Assurance programs, also referred to as “Freshman Admit” or “3+3” programs, provide the opportunity for students to apply to the program directly from high school. The first three years of this pathway are categorized as the pre-professional phase while the second three years are categorized as the professional phase.

During the pre-professional phase, students typically work on completing three different requirements: prerequisite courses for the professional phase; undergraduate major requirements; and institutional requirements such as core coursework.

While students pursuing a DPT degree via an early assurance pathway have to meet the program’s requirements to gain entrance into the professional phase, most programs do not require students to reapply to the professional phase. This alone has the potential to provide a reduction in a student’s stress level thereby facilitating mental well-being, a hot topic in physical therapy education.

“First-time pass rates on the National Physical Therapy Exam from Early Assurance programs were similar to those of all programs...”

Beneficial early access

According to the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) website, of the 236 accredited DPT programs in the United States, 34 are listed as having an ‘Early Assurance DPT’ pathway. An advantage of these programs is students are able to complete degree requirements in six rather than seven years. Given the exponential increase in tuition and significant rise in student debt over the last couple decades, completing degree requirements sooner would seem to be beneficial as long as the quality of the program is comparable.

Addressing this, an October 2017 position paper published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Education revealed that first-time pass rates on the National Physical Therapy Exam from Early Assurance programs were similar to those of all programs, 92 percent compared to 87.7 percent, respectively. Likewise, employment rates were identical at 99.5 percent when comparing Early Assurance to all programs. However, to pursue the Early Assurance pathway, students must have a good idea of their desired career path at a young age.

Projections of growth

Regardless of the degree path, given the competitive nature of the application process, students frequently apply to multiple programs. Should a student be accepted into and complete an accredited program, they will be rewarded with a strong job market.  According to the Bureau of Labor & Statistics, the job outlook for physical therapists is promising with projections of 25 percent growth over the next 10 years. This growth is likely multifaceted, including an aging population and the ability of physical therapists to practice in a direct access environment without physician referral in all 50 states. If this information isn’t enough to convince one to consider physical therapy as a career option, physical therapy is commonly cited as one of the most fulfilling jobs.