Physical Therapy school is expensive for most students, especially if you choose to attend a private or out-of-state program. I estimated my total student loans to be around $140,000, however I had poorly underestimated my interest rates. Tuition tends to rise throughout 3 years, cost of living is difficult to estimate, and interest rates on unsubsidized loans can be devastating. I hope that you are able to learn from my situation and some of my mistakes, and I encourage you to continue learning as much as you can about student loans before applying to grad school or before your deferment period ends.
I also hope to give you some encouragement, before you read some pretty discouraging information. Yes, tuition is expensive. The physical therapy field has a long history of declining reimbursement and stagnant salaries, which is concerning for long-term financial security. However, if you are smart with your budgeting and have a plan to pay off your loans, everything should be okay.
I’m sharing my personal experience to help you make more educated financial decisions. PT school is not cheap for most people, and you need to be well aware of the stress and emotional burnout that can be caused by a significant amount of loans.
Please be aware that there may be errors in any information I share, so always do your own research on official websites for your specific student loans. You can confirm information about federal loans on the FedLoan Servicing website.
If you only learn one thing from this article, please remember this: Do not apply for physical therapy school until you are well educated on the cost of tuition, cost of living, loan interest rates, and repayment plans. Make sure you understand the average salary for a physical therapist in your desired setting and your desired location. Understand insurance reimbursement changes, the healthcare market, and that your salary may not ever increase to 6 figures. Make sure that all of these factors are acceptable for your desired lifestyle and quality of life post-graduation. Do not wait until PT school graduation to figure out these many details.
How I Accumulated $163k in Student Loans
I accepted 5 loans to help pay for my bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley, and 12 loans to pay for 100% of PT school tuition and living expenses. I only I have listed my loan details below, and have combined the loans with the same interest rate so it’s easier for you to read. I also ordered them by lowest to highest interest rate, not by the chronological order.
- $10,000 | 3.4%
- $3,700 | 3.86%
- $3,500 | 4.5%
- $1200 | 5%
Thankfully all of these loans were subsidized, meaning that I did not accumulate any interest while I was still an undergraduate student, or during my 6-month deferment period following graduation from undergrad.
Read Student Loans 101 on the FedLoan Servicing website to learn the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans.
Payment on undergrad loans: I took 1 year off between graduating with my Bachelor’s degree in June 2014 and starting Physical Therapy school in August 2015. During that time I applied to PT schools, studied for the GRE, took 2 prerequisite classes, worked 3 different jobs, and moved cross country. My deferment period ended in December 2014, so I paid the minimum monthly payment on these loans (standard 10-year plan) until PT school started in August 2015. I paid about $1,800 in this time period.
Interest on Undergrad loans: The accumulated interest on these loans between December 2014 and August 2015 was around $330.
*Side note on the interest rates: I have signed up for Direct Debit, so the interest rates for all my undergrad and grad school loans are reduced by 0.25%. This doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you have 6-figures of student loans, every little bit significantly helps.
Physical Therapy School Loans:
- $20,500 | 5.31%
- $30,750 | 5.84%
- $20,500 | 6%
- $26,870 | 6.31%
- $13,230 | 6.84%
- $26,500 | 7%
Payment on PT school loans: I was a Teaching Assistant during my 2nd year of PT school (making $150/week when classes were in session), so I was able to pay $9,300 during the spring of my 2nd year. A majority of this was on my 6.84% loan, which was the highest interest rate loan at the time of payment. This significantly decreased my total amount of loans and interest by my graduation.
Interest on PT school loans: The approximate interest between August 2015 and March 2019, when my deferment period ended and I had to begin payments, is around $13,800. All of my PT school loans were unsubsidized, so interest began accumulating while still in school.
Total due in March 2019: $163,700. I graduated PT school in September 2018, and had another 6-month deferment period. This total would have been around $173,000 if I did not make any payments during PT school.
What are the current interest rates on grad school loans?
You can see the current interest rates for Undergrad loans, Graduate Unsubsidized loans, and Grad Plus loans by clicking on their respective links. The interest rates for loans disbursed after 7/1/19 and before 7/1/20 are:
- Undergrad loans: 4.53%
- Graduate unsubsidized loans: 6.08%
- Grad Plus loans: 7.08%
The Graduate Unsubsidized loans have a maximum limit of $20,500 per year. This money did not cover my annual tuition for PT school, so I needed to also have Grad Plus Loans to pay for the remainder of my tuition, and my living expenses. The interest rates also increased throughout my 3 years of PT school, so the Stafford Loans around 5.31% were the loans that paid for my first year of PT school, but the Stafford Loan at 6% interest paid for my 3rd year of PT school.
Loan Fees: As if the 6-7% interest rates weren’t enough already
“The loan fee is a percentage of the loan amount and is proportionately deducted from each loan disbursement. The percentage varies depending on when the loan is first disbursed” – FedLoan Website.
Here are the current loan fees for loans disbursed after 10/1/19 and before 10/1/20:
- Direct unsubsidized / subsidized: 1.059%
- Grad Plus: 4.236%
Say you need to take out $20,500 of direct unsubsidized loans for tuition for 1 year of PT school, and another $13,000 of grad plus loans for your living expenses. $767.78 will be immediately subtracted from your total as a “loan fee”, and you will get the remainder money for tuition and living expenses. You are still required to pay back this “loan fee” and the interest on the loan fee.
When you’re applying for student loans, make sure you account for these loan fees and request for additional money if needed.
To read more about these loan fees, read here.
Cost of Physical Therapy School
Tuition: My estimated cost of physical therapy school tuition was around $65,000 total for all 3 years when I applied. I never confirmed if this amount was accurate based on what I paid over my 3 years there. Some fees increased, and the 65k does not include what I paid for books, technology/athletic fees, dress code uniforms, and physical therapy supplies. I would estimate another $10,000 for rising tuition and these extra expenses.
Rent / Utilities: My estimated rent was about 430 – 470 / month for 3 years, with about 100-120 in utilities/month. That is around $22,000. I was able to afford the master bedroom in a 3 bedroom house, because I went to school in an area with a really cheap cost of living.
Food: I am estimating around $200/month on food, as I meal prepped every week and did not go out to eat very often. This adds up to around $7200 total.
Networking Events: I attended the Combined Sections Meeting in 2018, SSPT Live in 2018, TravCon in 2018, and the APTAMD student conclave in 2017 and 2018. These add up to about another $3,500 including the cost of the conference, hotel rooms, food, and airplane tickets.
Flights between Maryland and California: Each round-trip flight cost about $500. I took about 7 flights during my 3 years to go home for Christmas and other school breaks, making the total around $3,500.
These expenses add up to around $110k. This doesn’t include gas, car repairs and maintenance, spring break vacation plans, clothes and hygiene items, furniture for my room, kitchen supplies, school supplies, and money spent on my hobbies or entertainment. This also does not include any loan fees that were deducted from each loan.
I thought I would graduate physical therapy school with around $140,000 total in loans. As you can see, I underestimated my cost of living and other various expenses. I also underestimated how quickly interest adds up over 3 years of graduate school.
Do I Regret Choosing to Become a Physical Therapist?
This topic deserves an entirely separate blog post, but I wanted to add a short summary here.
Starting my career with a whopping 160k in loans was a bit of a slap in the face, and I regretted my decisions sometimes. I regret not saving money before PT school, or trying to pay off more of my undergrad loans during my gap year. I regret not budgeting before and during PT school to minimize this overwhelming debt.
However, I absolutely love my career choice. I love that I’m able to pursue travel physical therapy to learn from many different healthcare providers and work in different settings. I like that I have some flexibility in working above 40 hours/week to pay off my loans faster, if I were to choose that route. I love that I get excited to go to work in the morning, and that I’m always learning new things at work and outside of work. Nothing beats the feeling when an elderly patient is confident enough to return home, or when you’re able to help a child learn how to walk.
Yes, the student loans are usually WAY too much for every PT student that is graduating now. It would be ideal if everyone graduated with less than 100k in student loans, but it just isn’t feasible for many students. I am thankful that I love my career and haven’t experienced too much burnout from my job.
However, if you search online, many PT students and new grads do regret their decision to become a physical therapist. This regret is usually only partially due to the stress of student loan payments. Make sure you fully understand what you’re getting into before you apply to physical therapy school, because it’s significantly harder to change careers once you’re a new grad and have loans to pay.
Would you recommend taking 2 years off opposed to one gap year to save more money and decrease the amount of loans I’ll need to take out? I just graduated undergrad and am debating this right now!
I think that’s such a personal question that I do not have enough information to answer well. You would need to calculate approximately how much money you would be able to save, versus starting school earlier and therefore being able to start working as a PT earlier (and likely making a higher income than you are now). For me personally, I was only making around minimum wage during my break year, so it would have been a waste of time for me to take an extra year or two to save money. You would need enough money to apply to PT schools, interview, and begin school (rent for apartments, moving costs, buying your books in your first semester — anything other than tuition costs, as your loans may not get to you until after you start your classes).
I think the biggest factor is attending a school that has tuition that is as cheap as possible. I hope that helps, but please let me know if you have any other questions!