This post is Part II of a four-part series to help occupational therapy students and practitioners find ways to fund their OT education. You can read Part I here.
People who are applying to OT school are often in the difficult position of deciding which program they will attend before they have a 100% clear understanding of what their financial situation will be at each institution. It’s a tough spot to be in, but these tips will help potential OT students avoid as much debt as possible from the start of the application process onward.
Note: These tips are primarily geared towards students applying to graduate level occupational therapy programs, which are generally more expensive than occupational therapy assistant programs. However, much of the information still applies no matter which OT degree you are pursuing!
- Get your applications in early. By waiting until the last minute to submit, you may miss out on funding opportunities. I turned in one OT school application two days before the December deadline and learned later that people who submitted their applications before mid-October were automatically considered for a specific scholarship – an opportunity I missed out on! Begin the application process as early as you can to ensure that your application is considered when early funding or scholarship decisions are made.
- If you are still in undergrad or taking prerequisite courses at a college, visit your financial aid office or check online for scholarships for graduating students, people entering healthcare professions, etc. and see if you can get money on your way out!
- Stand out both inside and outside the classroom. Being a strong student and having a strong record of extracurricular, volunteer, or professional involvement are often two of the most important factors for students seeking scholarships. Give your best effort in academic and extracurricular or volunteer pursuits to increase your chances of earning awards.
- Start the funding search early. See my previous post for detailed information about conducting your funding search for each potential program. By comparing funding options early, you may be able to avoid applying to programs with few financial aid options or that may ultimately be too expensive.
- Choose your degree carefully. There are several degree options available that will allow you to practice occupational therapy. OTA programs cost significantly less than graduate master’s or doctoral OT programs, and they may allow students to join the workforce and begin earning more quickly than graduate programs. Additionally, while many programs are transitioning to the entry-level OTD, the increased academic requirements and length of these programs tend to make them more expensive than entry-level master’s programs. Review your options carefully and speak with an advisor who is familiar with OT degrees to make the decision that best suits your personal, professional, and financial goals.
- Don’t forget to factor in cost of living and “hidden” expenses along with tuition. While you’re paying tuition at your OT school of choice, you’ll still need a place to live. Be aware that even if a program has a low overall cost, the local area may have a high cost of living that impacts your budget. Use a cost of living calculator or other tool to learn more about what you can expect to spend if you relocate for school.
- Ask around. Get in touch with current or previous students and ask them (politely, and as appropriate!) how they financed their education. While most students are probably using loans to cover the majority of their bills, other students may have scholarships, fellowships, or other sources of funding that you might also be eligible for. Posting on OT Connections can be a good way to get info!
- Don’t expect to work full time during OT/A school. Several of my classmates expressed frustration about not being able to work more often during the school year. While their concerns about saving money are understandable, it’s important to realize that while you’re in school your full time job is going to be being a full time student. Although many people manage part-time positions during their studies, don’t choose a program with the expectation that you’ll be able to maintain a heavy work schedule.
- Consider attending a part-time, hybrid, or flexibly scheduled OT/A program. By attending a program part-time or taking some classes online, you can free up more time to work and save money during school. By taking fewer classes each semester, you will also have lower tuition each year (although you will be taking classes over a longer period of time).
- Join your state OT association. By becoming a member of your state OT association, you make yourself eligible to compete for scholarships where the pool is smaller. In most cases, there are relatively few student members, and not all students will apply for scholarships. Consider that for your relatively small membership fee, you have dramatically increased the odds that you will receive a scholarship (in addition to supporting the profession in your state!).
- Stay in state. Unless you cannot stand the idea of living in your state for another several years, in most cases in-state tuition will be less expensive than that of out-of-state schools. This is not true for all places and programs, so do your research and compare costs carefully during the application process before going this route.
- Narrow the playing field. Instead of applying to many OT/A programs all across the country simply because they are well-ranked or prestigious, consider focusing your efforts on schools that have similar cost-saving qualities, such as being in-state, in areas with low costs of living, or having great records of financial aid. Thinking ahead about the costs and funding available at each program will also save you the expense of applying to schools you ultimately can’t afford or aren’t willing to pay for.
- Always do the FAFSA! Even if you don’t end up receiving any funding, you really never know. I completed the FAFSA for my first year as a graduate student, and I was eligible to earn up to $2000 as a work-study employee. If I had never applied, that’s $2K that I never would have received.
The path to funding your OT education can be a difficult one, and the journey starts long before you send in that first application! But by carefully reviewing your education options, starting the funding search early, and making wise decisions about when and where to apply, you can help offset some of the costs of OT school from the outset.
What cost-saving advice do you have for potential OT/A students? Share in the comments!