Best Occupational Therapy Associate Degree Programs

Oct 19, 2021

What is an Occupational Therapy Associate Degree?

An associate degree in occupational therapy (OT) is a great way to break into the field. As a profession, OT is focused on helping patients with injuries, disabilities, and other conditions recover from or adjust to their specific medical situations so that they can lead more fulfilling lives. OTs and their staff support patients whose altered health has impacted their ability to participate in day-to-day activities, such as eating and bathing.

Associate degrees in OT prepare students to address these and other circumstances with courses covering physiology, psychology, ethics, assistive technologies, and other topics relevant to therapeutic care. Associate-level OT programs also have students learn through hands-on practice out in the field and most tailor their coursework around the standard certification exam for occupational therapy assistants (OTAs), the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) Certification Exam.

Types of Occupational Therapy Associate Degrees

The majority of OT associate degrees are Associate of Science (AS) in Occupational Therapy Assistance. You may also see an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Occupational Therapy Assistance.

Like with many other associate degrees designed around a profession, AS and AAS in OT programs focus on academic fundamentals and practical knowledge. This kind of associate degree is intended for those who want to enter the workforce sooner rather than later and with actionable skills. To ensure this, OT programs at this level hit the ground running with their curricula, spending less time on general education requirements than comparable bachelor's programs.

Why Should I Get an Occupational Therapy Associate Degree?

To enroll in an associate program students must have earned a high school diploma or passed an equivalent exam, such as the General Educational Development (GED) test. After being accepted, students will have to decide if they want to take enough classes per semester to be considered a full-time student, or take fewer classes as a part-time student. Many colleges and universities that offer these degrees allow students to pursue them part-time, though some require students to get permission from the program's advisor before doing so.

Associate degrees in OTA are mostly meant for those who wish to work as occupational therapy assistants or aides after graduating. Students can aim for a lifelong career as an OTA, or plan to work as an OTA while continuing their education in occupational therapy. Depending on how many credits one can transfer, a student interested in becoming an OT can shave up to two years off the time it might take to earn their bachelor's degree.

How to Choose an Occupational Therapy Associate Program

One of the first things to look for when choosing an OT associate program is its accreditation status. Accreditation is important in general, though it is especially so for OTAs as many positions require graduates to be Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTAs). The process of OTA certification will be expanded on in a later section, but students should look for programs accredited Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE). Even if one does not plan on becoming a COTA, certified occupational therapy assistant programs offer unparalleled educational quality in the discipline.

For students who see an associate degree in OTA as the starting point of their academic journey, transfer options should be at the forefront of their minds when selecting programs. For those who wish to become OTs, a master's degree is the bare minimum they will have to earn, and one has to have completed a bachelor's degree to enroll in a master's program in OT. Some colleges and universities offer pre-OT tracks at the bachelor's level, though they are relatively rare. Focusing on programs that let one transfer all or most of the credits from their associate degree to their bachelor's allows students to save up to two years of enrollment. The chances of transferring more of one's credits are higher with programs that have similar curricula, such as health sciences degrees.

Application and Admissions for Occupational Therapy Associate Degree Programs

To be admitted to an associate program in OTA students need to have either finished high school or passed a comparable test, like the GED. Many colleges and universities also ask for the results of one's Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or ACT. High school Grade Point Average (GPA) is often considered as part of one's application, and colleges or universities may encourage students with GPAs below 2.0 not to enroll.

Beyond diplomas and exams, OTA associate programs usually require prospective students to have personal as well as professional liability insurance. This is because most if not all OTA degrees have students working directly with medical patients in some capacity. Related to this, some colleges and universities will ask students to undergo a criminal background check, and while some do not, the medical institutions where students perform their supervised fieldwork might. Yearly medical exams are also generally expected of students enrolled in degrees involving patient care and medicine. Health sciences aside, most colleges and universities also want two to three references and an essay or interview.

How Long Does It Take to Get an Occupational Therapy Associate Degree?

Similar to other associate degrees, OTA programs take around two years to complete when enrolled full-time and include anywhere from 42-70 credit hours. Students may be able to complete their degree more quickly if their curriculum offers accelerated learning opportunities. Because OTA programs are structured around their fieldwork courses, associate programs tend to follow a cohort model, which limits students' ability to pace their learning. Accelerated programs may offer students more flexibility concerning classes, and semesters usually take eight weeks to complete as opposed to the standard fifteen of a traditional semester.

How Much Does an Associate Degree in Occupational Therapy Cost?

Most colleges and universities price their tuition on a per-credit basis, and a community college may only cost around $100 per credit. Of course, most classes consist of three course credits, so in this instance, an entire course at a community college might cost $300. As for private institutions, course credits may be more like $500. Going by this math, tuition for a 60-credit degree would come to $6,000 at a public institution and $18,000 at a private one.

However, tuition is not the only expense one has to consider while earning a degree. Housing, whether on-campus or commuting, textbooks, and facility fees are all financial likelihoods that those pursuing associate degrees in OTA will have to take into account. Labs fees are also common for science-based degrees. Most colleges and universities have breakdowns of how they structure their fees on their websites.

Associate Degree Coursework

During a student's first semester in an OTA associate program, they can generally expect to learn about healthcare fundamentals like human development, psychology, and physical anatomy. Most associate degrees in OTA also have communications requirements, either as a core course or as an elective.

OTAs have to coach a variety of patients through difficult medical situations, such as life-altering injuries or pain-inducing conditions, so being able to calmly guide others is a highly valuable skill. Much of the coursework in these programs builds up to one of several fieldwork courses where students go out into the world and work under the supervision of practicing OTs. The number of fieldwork courses varies by program, though at the associate level it typically ranges from two to four. These courses can be general or deal with specific populations, such as adolescents or the elderly. Other common OTA courses include:

  • Introductory Psychology
  • Interpersonal Communications
  • Human Growth and Development
  • Therapeutic Techniques
  • Kinesiology
  • Fieldwork I

How Much Can I Earn With an Associate Degree in Occupational Therapy?

Some of the more common jobs occupational associate degree holders pursue are occupational therapy assistant and occupational therapy aide. As people in the United States live longer, the national median age continues to increase. In practical terms, this means that careers dealing with older populations, like many of those in the health sector, should see an increased need for college-trained professionals. Currently, graduates with an associate degree in occupational therapy can expect to make somewhere between $40,000-$70,000 depending on their job, what type of facility they work in, and the state they are employed in.

Begin a Career as an Occupational Therapy Assistant

A career in occupational therapy assistance requires at least an associate degree in OTA. Certification and licensure are also necessary in most circumstances, which will be covered in greater detail in a later section. After one is ready to work as an OTA, they can expect to find employment in a variety of care facilities: physician's offices, nursing care facilities, specialty clinics, and general hospitals.

Occupational therapy assistants work under the supervision of an OT. This can take the form of receiving a rehabilitation regimen and coaching a patient through it or involve logging and reporting a patient's progress. These tasks suit those who are attentive, patient, and good at communicating.

According to ZipRecruiter, the national average salary for occupational therapy assistants is $65,734. As for state-by-state salaries, ZipRecruiter puts Washington, New York, New Hampshire, California, and Vermont as the highest paying locales. Washington averages the most, offering OTAs about $88,808 annually. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects that from 2019-2029, jobs in occupational therapy assistance will increase by 32%.

Begin a Career as an Occupational Therapy Aide

While the job titles sound similar and their educational backgrounds often match, occupational therapy aides tend to fill different roles than occupational therapy assistants. Occupational therapy aides work more indirectly with patients. They usually handle clerical work like scheduling appointments, prepare equipment for patient examinations, and sanitize training equipment. Although their duties differ, occupational therapy aides work in the same places that occupational therapy assistants do. Being detail-oriented and having the ability to multitask benefit applicants for this position.

ZipRecruiter estimates that occupational therapy aides make around $45,827 a year. At the state level, the BLS has Washington, New York, Louisiana, Arizona, and Virginia as the states with the highest average salaries. Regarding job growth, the BLS predicts that between 2019-2029 occupational therapy aide positions will see an increase of 32%.

Certifications & Licensure for Occupational Therapy

The major certification for occupational therapy assistants is earned via an exam held by the National Board for the Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). To be eligible to sit for NBCOT's Certification Exam, those educated in the United States need to have graduated from a program accredited by ACOTE. NBCOT offers two certification exams, one for occupational therapists and one for occupational therapy assistants. Passing the latter makes one a COTA.

The need for certification varies by state. Some states require OTA graduates to become COTAs to work in the field, others do not. Additionally, many states require OTAs to obtain a license before they can begin practicing. In some cases, becoming a COTA is sufficient to obtain a state license, whereas in other cases more will be asked for. Almost every state has an OT board or committee that oversees state licensing and visiting their website is the quickest way to learn what steps are needed to attain a state license.

Accreditation for Occupational Therapy Associate Degree Programs

The premier accreditation agency in occupational therapy is ACOTE, an advisory council within the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). ACOTE sets educational standards for programs in occupational therapy at the associate, master's and doctoral levels and accredits individual programs that meet their qualifications.

Accreditation is important in that it serves as a guarantee of a program or institution's value. Students do not want to waste their time or money on degrees that will get them nowhere, and neither do those who offer student aid. In the vast majority of cases, whether it be from the government or a private group, those who award scholarships and other forms of tuition assistance also want to know that students will make good on their investment. Given this, it is no surprise that a prerequisite for most financial aid is the attendance of an accredited program or institution.

What Are Other Occupational Therapy Degree Options?

If you intend to work as an OT in the future, you'll need to earn at least a master's degree in occupational therapy. Teaching OT at most colleges and universities will require the completion of a doctorate program in the discipline. Bachelor's degrees in occupational therapy are also available. Below, we'll profile these.

Bachelor's Degrees in Occupational Therapy

An associate degree is sufficient to work as an OTA, though a master's degree in OT is necessary to apply to occupational therapist positions. Because of this, those looking to advance their careers in the field obtain bachelor's degrees not for a specific job but as a prerequisite to graduate studies. OT does not have a set bachelor's degree that those pursuing graduate degrees are expected to earn. In some cases, any bachelor's degree will do, though a background in health science is generally preferred when applying to master's programs in OT. Psychology, biology, and kinesiology are all great choices for future OTs. Some colleges and universities with master's programs in OT even offer pre-OT tracks for some of their bachelor's level majors. These guide students into the classes that will be most beneficial for their continued studies in OT.

Master's Degrees in Occupational Therapy

To begin a career as an occupational therapist one has to obtain at least a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy (MSOT). Programs are typically taught in cohorts and split time between didactic learning (theory-based coursework undertaken in a classroom or lab) and fieldwork. The time it takes to complete an MSOT varies, though most can be earned in two-and-a-half to three years. Unlike many other master's programs, most MSOT degrees require students to take summer courses. Usually, a master's in OT consists of 30-44 credit hours.

Beyond certification, exam preparation and practical internships, master's degrees in occupational therapy also offer specializations. Specializations in OT focus on particular patient populations, so one might take classes to learn the medical situations and social circumstances surrounding the elderly or the visually impaired. These tracks are mainly intended for students who have a good idea of the patients they want to work with post-graduation.

Doctoral Degrees in Occupational Therapy

Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) is the typical title for doctorates in the field. Since a master's is sufficient to become an OT, as far as degrees go, a doctorate is usually pursued to either advance one's career or to become a collegiate instructor. Some OTD programs designate themselves as post-professional, and this means that they only admit those who are either working as or have worked as occupational therapists.

OTD programs can take three years to complete when taken full-time, though most working adults take around eight years to finish them on a part-time basis. These programs typically include around 100 credits of coursework. As with all other levels, fieldwork is mandatory. Similar to master's in OT, some programs require students to take summer courses.

Certificate Programs in Occupational Therapy

Continuing education requirements for occupational therapists differ depending on their professional priorities. Collegiate certificates are rarely necessary, though they can help one break into specific disciplines within OT.

The vast majority of certificate programs in OT offer graduate certificates. These are aimed at students who have completed at least a bachelor's or are in the process of earning their doctorate. Most college-based certificates in OT revolve around specializations, like rehabilitation for those with diminished sight and sensory integration. A few are designed for professionals looking to transition from their medical practice to teaching. Certificate programs in OT are usually 12-15 credit hours in length and can thus be earned in a single semester if program scheduling allows.

Scholarships & Financial Aid for Occupational Therapy Associate Degrees

Students who want to receive financial aid should first look into the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). FAFSA is the federal government's tuition assistance program, which offers financial aid, student loans and work-study programs. To be eligible to apply for FAFSA, students have to be enrolled in or accepted to an accredited program or institution.

Another place to look for student aid is through professional organizations in the field, like the American Occupational Therapy Foundation. Professional organizations have an interest in the future of their discipline, so many seek to support their next generation through financial assistance.

Some of these opportunities, like the AOTA Assembly of Student Delegates (ASD) Scholarship, are restricted to a specific degree level (in this case, associate degrees), while others are state-specific and tied to state OT associations, such as the Kansas - Gloria Scammahorn Memorial Endowed Scholarship.

Of course, not all student aid comes from government bodies and professional organizations. Broadening one's search for scholarships, grants, and awards can help students secure more financial assistance, and a great resource for this is the Scholarship Finder on CareerOneStop's website. CareerOneStop is sponsored by the US Department of Labor, and their database of student aid opportunities is one of the most extensive. Searches on the Scholarship Finder can be refined using keywords to look for aid related to one's major or tuned to one's degree level or location.

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