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PT School Put Me in Debt - Now What?

by Sara Cates, PT, DPT, FAFS, HHP


The week of commencement from PT school is usually a very exciting time: celebrations with family and friends, reminiscing and laughing with classmates.

But amongst the positivity that surrounds the week, the unspoken emotion of uncertainty can infest the DPT student’s mind and challenge their attitude about their financial well-being.

One stands at the junction of accomplishment bliss and where-to-next anxiety as they begin overturning cards of future employment goals. Adjustment disorders and depression post-graduation are currently on the rise, especially with the stressor of costly Doctorate of Physical Therapy graduate degrees.

The angst we may feel never gets its full weight and attention when we are in the limelight and graduating with advanced degrees. The game just got serious though. Relating to financial worry, what’s the winning move?


The growing expense of PT school

PT school is typically a 3-year commitment, which seems like an eternity to the typical entry-level student. Many students enter PT school already facing student loan debt from undergraduate school.

Average public, in-state PT school will cost an individual $75,000 in tuition alone (not considering costs of books, room/board etc.). Private school education is even more expensive and can creep upwards of $100k-$150k.

Even just 10 years ago it was more common to find a master’s level program. These PT school programs averaged 2 years at half the aforementioned cost. However, this is no longer a realistic option for the majority of future PT students.

The APTA's Vision 2020 projected an outlook of the PT professional as an autonomous practitioner at the doctorate level, like chiropractors. This built great pride and added quality to the education that is required. The services we can provide as physical therapists increased too.

PT school debt

CovalentCareers' 2019 Physical Therapist Report shows that 22.5% of therapists have $100,000-$150,000 of student debt. Nearly one-fifth have more than $150,000!

It has been 8 years since my first day of PT school and there are days I still stand at the grocery shelf thinking, “cheap noodles or canned tuna for tonight?”

It is unfortunate that base salaries in many highly populated cities in America do not mirror the heightened quality of education, cost of tuition, and well-roundedness it takes to become a successful practicing physical therapist.

It saddens me to realize that the real-life application of what it takes to become a physical therapist these days forces graduates to dig deep and pull hard on their dream-big bootstraps to become financially stable well after graduating PT school.

I remember being sleep-deprived, working long hours on mock client scenarios, and creating treatment plans in school until I fell asleep, resorting to the “learn by osmosis” strategy. I would place textbooks under the pillow to hopefully absorb information by pure proximity.

Little had I realized that getting through those didactic, application courses would soon become my full-time job!

It is a vulnerable time when graduates are first grasping the concept of what navigating through life means. During that time, they’re expected to remain passionate about their careers.

Most graduates are just starting to apply for employment as the PTLA waiting period passes (90 days in California) and these new, motivated graduates are left eager to finally use the skills they’ve attained and make their first paycheck.

This takes me to the next steps - and the general theme of this article - financial planning.

Debt and financial planning

Your individual financial scenario determines the plan of attack when considering paying off student loans. Kind of like the chess pieces that determine your next move.

Taking into consideration that everyone’s financial starting points are likely dissimilar, and family life/ extracurricular interests are unique to every individual, it is unrealistic for me to find the standardized perfect formula to recommend for paying off PT school debt.

Additionally, I am not a qualified financial advisor.

However, I have found specific key topics that have helped me navigate through paying off my loans from private DPT school in 6 years. Achieving this feat has allowed me to once again open up my big-dreamer mentality to the next chapters and goals in my life.

The best advice I can start with is to first bring awareness to your reality and do the best you can with working towards realistic goals.

Strategize a system where you can maintain an emphasis on paying off the bottom line, while still upholding your values and what you want to do in your lifetime.

We are all at different stages and phases and will go about repayment in many different ways, but the important thing to remember is to make a plan and stick to it! Be systematic and work smartly within the parameters you set for yourself, so you always feel like you are making forward progress.

Top 10 to-dos before executing your PT school debt repayment plan

  1. Know how much you owe and to what lender.
  2. Don’t do income-based repayment if you can afford it, as the long term hit on interest can end up doubling your loan amount.
  3. Use a monthly budget to plan your expenses, but don’t be too hard on yourself.
  4. Decide which debts to pay off first using highest interest rate as your focus.
  5. Make at least the minimum payment on-time each month so you stay out of delinquent status.
  6. Build an emergency fund to fall back on.
  7. Work for an employer who matches 401k or another retirement account (aka FREE money!)
  8. Open a Roth IRA (pre-taxed retirement account) as soon as you start working.
  9. Consider your significant other/family in the ‘big picture”.
  10. Don’t take your foot off of the repayment gas pedal until it’s paid off.

I would like to include some more concrete data just to help educate around the nitty gritty of the topic of student loans.

In 2014, the private lending company Sallie Mae split into two. The student loan-servicing agency is now managed by Navient. Here is how it happened! There are many lender options out there, but this seems to be a more commonly used and trusted company, especially if you have to choose a private loan lender.

As of May 10, 2015, all student loan information has been consolidated into a National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS).

In order to access a full detailed history of your Federal Direct Student Loan activity, you will need to create an FSA ID here.

The #1 debt incurred these days is student loan debt, and it is important at the very least to be educated about the topic if you fall into the category of being a borrower.

Some 2017 Navient facts

  • Direct Subsidized Loans and Direct Unsubsidized Loans for undergraduate students averaged a 4.45% interest rate.
  • Direct PLUS loans for parents of undergraduate students and Direct PLUS loans for graduate/professional students averaged a 7.00% interest rate.
  • Private loans are more likely between a 6.5%-10% interest rate, depending on when you establish the loan and whether it is fixed or variable.

PT school debt success story

DPT graduate student.

Legally single, unmarried.

2 parent co-signers on a graduate school loan.

PT school debt: $100,000 ($80,000, government funded/$20,000 private).

  • Debt-free entering PT school (in-state tuition undergrad student who worked during summers to pay off tuition, rent, and food during 4-year program).
  • Undertook extra massage therapy work on the side/outside of school hours to help offset living expenses and pay for entertainment.
  • Capitalized on studying abroad experience while getting education credits, allowing for a combination of work and travel goals.
  • Paid towards principal while still in school (verifying there were no penalties for early repayment towards the principal amount).
  • Made a general plan and STUCK to it after graduating.
  • Chose a loan reflective of the standard repayment plan and never asked for forbearance.
  • Worked per diem on the weekend 2-4x/month to slowly chip away the principal amount of loan.
  • Set up a monthly direct deposit from work paycheck into private bank account dedicated to student loan repayment.
  • Focused on eating quality food at home to keep expenses manageable.
  • Chose to initially prioritize making money to get through loan repayment period before choosing a dream job.
  • Removed parents as co-signers to the loan once loan was 50% paid off. This freed them from being financially tied to the loan amount.
  • As loan amount got smaller, it became easier to stay motivated to finish paying it off.
  • Threw a celebratory event with close friends as a reward to all of the hard work!!

Understand that life will come with many opportunities to use loans to your advantage (ability to fund education, buy a new car, find your dream home, etc.), but if you bite off more than you can chew, it can be complicated and you may end up drowning in debt.

Terms to know

Principal - core loan amount borrowed

Interest (variable vs. fixed) - accrued money charge on top of the principal amount, dependent on a standard % rate

Repayment plan - framework for how you will be paying off your loan

Repayment period - grace period initiated, usually 6-month after graduation

Deferment or forbearance - allows you to temporarily stop making your federal student loan payments or to temporarily reduce the amount you pay

Loan consolidation - a way to combine all loans that qualify to create a new average % interest rate (similar to refinancing a home; I would suggest doing this after your highest interest rate loan has been paid off)

Public service loan forgiveness - if dedicated to working 10 years in a non-profit health service department, the government program will repay all outstanding federal (not private) loan amounts (see website for details)


Check out the Guide

Looking for more ways to save? Compare student loan refinancing rates with this tool from our partners at Credible.



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