In our guts we all have a sense that the Physical Therapy student debt/salary ratio was once much more sensible than it is now. But just how much have things changed? I dug up the numbers* to answer that question and have presented them below...15 years in four charts:
The Rising Cost of School
You are reading that correctly. Average total tuition and fees for a state program in 1999 was $18k. That's for the entire program. 15 years later it had more than tripled to $56k. Private programs doubled from $50k to $100k during that same period.
Please keep in mind that this does not include the cost of living.
Did Vision 2020 Add Another Year to School?
At first I had it in my mind that Vision 2020 (adopted in the year 2000) added a year to PT education with the move from the MSPT to the DPT. I was mistaken.
From 1999 to 2014, the average time spent in a PT program increased by only 16 weeks. Yep, just one additional semester of schooling--on average--as the profession moved from a master's to a doctorate. While that additional time will certainly increase total debt, it wasn't the 50% increase in living expenses that I'd anticipated. More like 14%.
So while the cost of school doubles or triples, the cost of keeping yourself alive while in school increases 14%. A jab-cross combo that has exploded the debt that students take on to enter the profession.
What about the earnings of a physical therapist? They've increased, though not nearly as rapidly:
Salary Increases Over This Time
During this 15 year period, median earnings increased from $56k to $82k. This translates to annual bumps of roughly 2.6%, on par with inflation. For comparison, private school costs increased 4.6% per year and public school costs increased 7.9% per year.
Why nothing will change anytime soon
I don't mean to be all doom and gloom here. The situation isn't great, but it's also not horrible. Check out the following new grad employment statistics:
Very few people who graduate a program are unemployed 6 months later. Exceedingly few.
It seems clear that PTs are entering a job market that would be the envy of many professions, even during the abysmal years following the implosion of the housing market. With that kind of stable earning potential in a crazy and uncertain world, demand for the degree will likely remain strong regardless of the price... which is a bit frightening.
It's worth keeping in mind the odd dip in unemployment that took place in 1999. It's my understanding that changes in reimbursement sent shockwaves through the PT job market. Perhaps a cautionary tale for our future.
*A note about where the data comes from. PT earnings were pulled from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics. School related stats were assembled from the Aggregate Program Fact Sheets published by CAPTE. The most recent one is here. Historical Aggregate Program Fact Sheets were kindly provided by CAPTE and can be downloaded here. Please note that data was not available for all years. Where it was not provided, it has been omitted from the charts.