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Overview of an Associate's in Rehabilitation Therapy

Even with an associate degree with an emphasis in rehabilitation therapy, to pursue a career as a rehabilitation therapist, a bachelor’s degree is required. However, you can enroll in a 2-year associate’s program to get started as a physical therapy assistant and gain some real-world experience. In addition to the practice and theory of physical therapy and basic medical sciences, you’ll also study general education and gain hands-on experience.

An associate's degree in rehabilitation therapy is typically comprised of both supervised fieldwork and classroom instruction that will provide clinical education. Students learn about healthcare science, medical terminology, human anatomy, mental health, and physical therapist assistant duties in this counseling specialization. Clinical experiences teach students how to perform under a physical therapist's supervision, communicate with patients one-on-one, administer general therapeutic exercises, and what to do in real-world situations that can arise in a hospital setting. If you choose to earn an associate degree in vocational/rehabilitation counseling, the beginning of the program examines science and theory while the second half consists of laboratory and clinical work, which includes four to five semesters and an occupational therapy or physical therapy clinical internship.


  • It only takes two years to get an associate's in vocational/rehabilitation counseling, a physical therapy program, or occupational therapy programs.
  • You can start working with employment opportunities such as right after graduating such as physical therapist assistant and others.
  • With an associate's in physical therapy, occupational therapy, or rehabilitation therapy, you will earn more with a degree than someone with just a high school diploma.


  • You can’t earn specific certifications with just an associate degree in rehabilitation therapy, occupational therapy, or a physical therapy program.
  • There aren’t many programs that offer this level degree in vocational/rehabilitation counseling, though there are several bachelor's degree programs.
  • There aren’t many employment opportunities with this degree, even if you're willing to work as a physical therapy assistant.

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Certificate Vs. Associate's

When studying to earn a certificate, you will only learn about a certain field with no general classes required, which is why earning your certificate doesn’t take as long as earning a degree in rehabilitation therapy or occupational therapy programs, where you will have to also take general classes as well as your courses of interest.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physical therapy assistants must take and pass the National Physical Therapy Exam to be able to practice as a physical therapist assistant. To qualify to take the exam, students must first earn an associate degree in physical therapy, occupational therapy, or a rehabilitation therapy degree. In addition, there are the licensure requirements to become a physical therapy assistant as well, which vary by state. In order to advance your career and become a full physical therapist, you must earn your bachelor's or master's degree online in vocational/rehabilitation counseling, a degree in physical therapy, occupational therapy, rehabilitation therapy, or another related degree in this field.

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What Rehabilitation Therapy Associate Degrees are Available Online?

At the associate level, you can pursue a degree as a physical therapy assistant. A bachelor’s is required to become a full physical therapist. Physical therapy assistants are supervised by a physical therapist while assisting them with patients. Their duties mainly consist of helping patients to overcome pain and gain physical strength following an illness or accident by teaching them exercises and movements that can be done to improve their range of motion. They also help the physical therapist with special techniques, including ultrasound therapy to promote recovery and reduce pain. These assistants may also have administrative duties within the therapist’s office to keep things running smoothly.

An Associate Degree in Physical Therapy program combines courses like physical therapy modalities, kinesiology, and human anatomy with hands-on clinical experience to prepare students for a career in the field as physical therapy assistants (PTAs). Most states require licensure to become a PTA as well as holding an associate degree.

Admission Requirements

Students entering this associate degree program must have completed introductory college courses in chemistry, biology, and English or have taken advanced classes in high school and have a high school diploma or equivalent GED to qualify. In addition, in order to practice as a rehabilitation therapy assistant, students must take and pass a state exam to obtain licensure according to their state’s requirements.

How long does it take to earn a Rehabilitation Therapy Associates Degree Online?

The majority of online associate degree programs take 2 years to complete for a student attending full-time. However, some schools offer specific programs where you can earn your associate degree in rehabilitation therapy assistance in as little as 15 months. If you are working and have to attend school on a part-time basis, then it can take up to four years to complete. Another option for those who attend part- or full-time, who wish to graduate faster, is attending night, weekend, and/or summer classes where students can earn their associate much sooner.

Potential Careers in Rehabilitation Therapy with an Associates

  • Physical Therapy Assistants
    A physical therapy assistant helps a licensed physical therapist with patients in a rehabilitation process. Duties may include helping with medical equipment, exercises, instructions, and record-keeping. According to the BLS, this occupation will experience a 41% increase in employment between 2014 and 2024, which is faster than average.
    The average annual salary, according to Payscale is - $50,600.
  • Physical Therapy Aides
    Physical therapy aides work under the supervision of a physical therapy assistant or physical therapists and are responsible for the cleanliness of the organization's treatment area as well as preparation. Aides are usually trained on the job and at least a high school diploma or equivalent is required. While an aide can assist with moving patients to treatment areas and back, they are not allowed to perform clinical tasks that are basically performed by a physical therapy assistant. The BLS reports that aides receive on-the-job training and may only need a high school diploma or equivalent. Aides can expect a rapid increase in employment of 39% from 2014 to 2024.
    The average annual salary, according to Payscale is – $28,700.
  • Respiratory Therapist
    A respiratory therapist works with patients who have breathing and/or other cardiopulmonary problems. These therapists work under the supervision of a physician to treat, rehabilitate, and evaluate patients trying to recover or suffering from disorders such as emphysema, asthma, shock, lung disease, stroke, sleep apnea, heart ailments, or smoking addiction. A respiratory therapist may also treat patients who suffer near-drowning or suffocation.

    An associate degree obtained from an accredited program is the minimum requirement for an entry-level position as a respiratory therapist, but these programs are limited and a bachelor's degree is typically preferred. The BLS estimates 12% job growth between 2014 through 2024, which is faster than for most careers.
    The average annual salary, according to Payscale is – $55,800.

Options to Advance

A rehabilitation therapy assistant has a lot of options to advance in their career. Although they cannot become an actual rehabilitation therapist until they have earned their bachelor's degree, they can advance to teaching or administrative roles through a rehabilitation therapy department.

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The first step toward advancing your career is to earn your bachelor’s degree. During this 2-year program, you will take mainly health and science-based classes. While earning your associate in the field, you should focus on the prerequisite coursework needed for the bachelor’s program that includes the following areas:

  • Calculus or Pre-calculus
  • General Psychology
  • Comparative Biology and Anatomy
  • Statistics
  • General Chemistry
  • Cellular Biology
  • General Physics

Best Associate of Science in Rehabilitation Therapy Programs

  • Fremont College
    Cerritos, CA

    Most of the students who attend Fremont College are there in pursuit of a career change for a better life. Fremont College provides flexible classes, day and night, and ensures you graduate on time without having to register every quarter for classes. Once you have been accepted, you will already be registered for all your courses and know what your schedule is like every quarter, so that you can work around it. You can complete this program in just 15 months.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate in Sports and Rehabilitation Therapy
  • University of Southern California
    Los Angeles, CA

    The associate in physical therapy degree program prepares students for a career working as a physical therapy assistant. Students learn how to care for patients with temporary injuries and ongoing illnesses, as well as assisting them in the rehabilitation process. In this career, it’s important for you to enjoy working with patients on a daily basis as well as being sensitive to their needs.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate Degree in Rehabilitation Therapy
  • Oklahoma State University
    Okmulgee, OK

    Programs in rehabilitation and physical therapy cover diseases, anatomy, physical ailments, patient care, and medical terminology. Students also learn about neurology, kinesiology, equipment operation, legal issues, and mental health. Labs allow students to apply what they learn through lectures and they can also participate in seminars with a special topic. Students also can take advantage of Internships, on-the-job training, and other hands-on practice included in accredited programs.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate Degree in Rehabilitation Therapy
  • Pima Medical Institute
    Tucson, AZ

    Those studying to be physical therapy assistants at Pima Medical Institute take specialized technique classes that help to improve a patient’s mobility, limit or prevent permanent physical disabilities, and relieve pain. The program offers knowledgeable instructors with many years of industry experience and hands-on experience. Students will learn to:

    • treat patients through balance and gait training, exercise, and other therapeutic programs under the direction of a physical therapist
    • utilize equipment that helps to improve a patients function and mobility with daily activities
    • monitor and observe patients before, during, and after therapy, and note the patient’s status while reporting to a physical therapist.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate Degree in Physical Therapist Assistance
  • Ross College
    Bowling Green, KY

    The associate degree in occupational therapy program is offered by Ross College in Bowling Green, Kentucky and Quad Cities, Iowa. This degree program can prepare students to help improve an individual’s quality of life by assisting them with performing their own daily activities through rehabilitative activities and exercises. Graduates can work in a wide variety of settings that include nursing homes, hospitals, home healthcare, schools, early intervention, psychiatric hospitals, and outpatient clinics.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate of Applied Science in Occupational Therapy Assistant

Traditional Schools Offering an AS in Rehabilitation Therapy

  • Western New Mexico University (WNMU)
    Silver City, NM

    The rehabilitation field is dedicated to assisting families and individuals with disabilities to live independent and full lives. Graduates of WNMU’s online rehabilitation services program are prepared to enter a number of entry-level positions in human services and rehabilitation. They are also academically prepared to continue into other rehabilitation graduate studies.

    The undergraduate degree focuses on experiential, hands-on learning integrated into all the coursework. All courses emphasize multicultural aspects, focusing on Hispanic, rural, and Native American experiences.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate Degree in rehabilitation therapy
  • Baker College
    Flint, MI

    Physical therapy assistants work with physical therapists to help patients learn how to do the things they used to do before an accident or illness. Students learn how to help with rehabilitation programs and procedures for a variety of conditions and injuries in this program.

    Through a combination of active lab participation and clinical experience working with real patients, students will learn the techniques and skills needed every day in their career as a physical therapy assistant. Graduates will be prepared to sit for the National Physical Therapy Assistants Examination and begin their career as a physical therapy assistant.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate of Applied Science in Physical Therapist Assistant

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  • Kent State University
    Kent, OH

    The Associate of Applied Science in Physical Therapy Assistant Technology program provides students with the behaviors, skills, and knowledge necessary to become a certified or licensed physical therapist assistant. These assistants work with a team to provide therapy services under the supervision and direction of a physical therapist. They also implement certain components of client/patient treatment, to make selected interventions, modifications, and obtain data related to the interventions provided.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Physical Therapist Assistant Technology
  • Washburn University
    Topeka, KS

    The physical therapy assistant is the only one who can properly assist the physical therapist, according to the positions and policies of the American Physical Therapy Association. Interventions include supportive device and brace training, motor learning, balance, massage, assistive device training, myofascial release, therapeutic exercise, coordination, facilitation techniques, range of motion, and applying physical agents such as cold, heat, electrical stimulation, ultrasound, and light-based therapies.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate of Science in Physical Therapist Assistant
  • Brenau University
    Gainesville, GA

    “Be More” isn't just a tagline at Brenau, it's a promise you make to yourself that you will be all you can be. The online programs at Brenau University surround you virtually with staff, fellow students, and instructors who encourage you to be the best you can be on your own schedule.

    For six consecutive years, Brenau University has been among the top 15 of USA’s best colleges according to U.S. News & World Report. The College of Education named Brenau University #9 in the "Honor Roll" listing for graduate degrees online. In addition, the Princeton Review named this University one of the best in the Southeast.

    Degrees Offered:

    • Associate Degree in Rehabilitation and Therapy

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between physical therapy and rehabilitation?

It might be difficult to tell the difference between physical therapy and rehabilitation. After all, both deal with the restoring or strengthening of certain functions. However, physical therapy is usually a recovery from a traumatic accident or injury. It focused on restoring functions, strength, and improving overall fitness. Rehabilitation focuses, instead, on treating long-term issues such as disabilities, training those who have issues performing everyday functions new ways to do things so that they can live independent lives. A rehabilitation therapist may also help someone recover from a medical condition or help them find ways to live well with a chronic condition. The goal of both is often to help the patient live without assistance.

Where do rehabilitation therapists and their assistants work?

These specialists usually work within private offices and clinics where they meet with a variety of patients throughout the day, much the same way as most other health specialists. However, they may instead work inside hospitals, where they might meet with patients who are looking for an assessment after being told they might need rehabilitation treatment. Others who deal with patients who need a lot of help might meet with those patients in their home. They can then help them figure out what they can change in their environment to make it more user friendly for their specific needs. All of these environments provide better overall outcomes for patients who often need wholistic treatment options.

What are some physical therapy assistant programs vs Rehabilitation Therapy programs I will have to take when completing my degree?

Are you considering a career in physical therapy or rehabilitation therapy? Deciding which program is the best fit for you can be a difficult decision. Physical Therapy Assistants and Rehabilitation Therapists are both important members of the medical profession, each with their own specialized roles to play. Physical Therapy Assistants provide hands-on care and support to patients with physical injuries, disabilities, or disease. Rehabilitation Therapists focus on helping individuals with mental health issues, learning disabilities, or psychological difficulties. When researching potential degree options, it is important to understand what types of courses are required for each role and how they compare in terms of job responsibilities.

For those interested in pursuing a physical therapy degree, education and training is essential. Completing a physical therapy education degree is a necessary foundation for the profession, and on-site or online physical therapy programs can provide an excellent introduction to the field. Physical therapist assistants work closely with licensed physical therapists, providing support for patient care under the direction of their supervisor. By completing one of many on-site or online physical therapy assistant programs, individuals will acquire knowledge of anatomy and physiology as well as skills related to patient assessment, treatment planning and implementation. In addition to learning about specific rehabilitative techniques such as massage therapy, joint mobilization and ultrasound treatments, students taking a on-site or online physical therapy assistant program will learn how to document patient progress accurately and develop rehabilitation plans that are customized for individual patients' needs. Furthermore, they may learn how to operate therapeutic equipment such as electrical stimulation machines or hydrotherapy units.

Completing a degree in rehabilitation therapy is an exciting and rewarding experience. With the right program, you will gain the knowledge and skills necessary to work with clients who have mobility impairments or disabilities. You'll be able to help them improve their physical functioning by providing treatments such as therapeutic exercises, massage therapy, and aquatic therapies. Rehabilitation therapy programs typically consist of coursework that covers medical terminology, physiology, kinesiology, psychology, anatomy and biomechanics. Additionally, students must complete clinical experiences to develop diagnostic skills in order to assess a patient's physical ability as well as plan appropriate treatment plans for each individual's needs. After completing the course requirements of your program you will be qualified to practice as a certified rehabilitation therapist in any state or country where licensing is required.

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