The new report says that education debt limits life choices of PTs and PTAs, and describes potential costs as a "deterrent to promising students." But there may be ways to ease the burdens.
Education debt among PTs and PTAs is a pervasive problem, and taking on the challenges will require strategies that are just as comprehensive: That's the message of a new APTA report on student debt that asserts there is no single "silver bullet" to undo the damage rising education costs are having on the profession.
Based largely on an APTA survey of PTs and PTAs, Impact of Student Debt on the Physical Therapy Profession reports that more than nine in 10 PT graduates are in debt for an average of nearly $153,000 — an amount that doesn't include mortgage debt. For nearly all of those PTs, most of their debt load is related to their PT education, with an average balance of $116,000 in related debt.
Other datapoints in the report reveal additional troubling effects of high student debt: For example, the survey found that PTs are putting off or giving up on buying homes or contributing to retirement, limiting their career choices to jobs that pay more but may not be their preferred practice setting, and sacrificing off-hours by taking on additional employment outside the profession. Overall, the impacts are more severe for non-white PTs, PTs with lower household incomes, and those with financial dependents. And the problem isn't limited to PTs: The report finds that nearly half of PTAs' total debt burdens are related to PTA education costs, with an average loan balance of $24,308.
"The cost of a DPT degree has created a significant barrier to the ability of recent graduates to achieve financial stability," writes APTA President Sharon Dunn, PT, PhD, in a letter introducing the report. "It's a barrier to increasing our profession's diversity, which in turn enhances care to all members of society. It's a barrier to participation in our association, which is essential to strengthening the voice of the profession on behalf of our patients. It's a barrier we must dismantle. Now."
The report emphasizes that addressing the problem will require work on nearly every front, from more transparency on the cost of PT and PTA education and realistic estimates of the salaries new graduates can expect, to improved financial literacy among students and possible DPT curriculum changes "that could decrease the financial burden on students, keeping in mind that one size does not fit all."
In addition to those wider recommendations, APTA also has been advocating for more specific and immediate changes on Capitol Hill — namely, inclusion of PTs in the National Health Services Corps Loan Repayment Program, and passage of the Allied Health Workforce Diversity Act, which would expand scholarship opportunities for therapy students from underrepresented backgrounds. APTA also continues to make improvements to its Financial Solutions Center, a suite of online resources that provides financial literacy education and opportunities for refinancing student debt at a discounted rate.