The 10 Best Physical Therapy Schools in California

Physical therapists offer treatment solutions to improve mobility and relieve pain. They assist individuals with medical problems or conditions that limit daily function. Arthritis, chronic pain, muscle strains, Parkinson’s disease, and spinal cord injuries are just some conditions that physical therapists can help manage. Along with relieving symptoms, PT can reduce the need for surgery and prescription drugs.

Outside of clinical practice, physical therapists play an important role in developing standards in the field. These medical professionals can also perform research, educate the public, and teach the next generation of physical therapists. In order to practice, physical therapists must attend graduate school and earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree.

While at PT school, students study the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems, exercise physiology, musculoskeletal system, and more. Clinical experience allows students to practice the techniques that they learn in the lab and classroom. Community service, research, and student organizations are important ways to combine theory and practice.

With over 200 PT schools, there are plenty of opportunities for PT students to practice. Many top universities are located in California, where healthcare is one of the fastest-growing industries. In addition, the state has one of the highest numbers of residents with an aging population. Physical therapists in California earn an average annual salary of $98,000 compared to the national average of $87,000.

Here are the ten best physical therapy schools in California, based on their placement in US News. In the case of a tie in the rankings, College Gazette will determine the tiebreaker.

10. California State University, Sacramento (Sacramento, CA)

CSU Sacramento
Irneh, Julia morgan house, CC BY-SA 3.0

Sacramento State engages students in clinical reasoning using simulated and real-world patient cases. Through 36 weeks of full-time internships, students learn how to apply their physical therapy knowledge in clinical practice. PT students complete these placements at three different locations to allow them to pursue their interests within the field.

The Simulation Learning Center has multiple labs for students to practice their clinical skills with patient simulators. Mimicking the appearance of a hospital patient room, students are able to practice hands-on skills without compromising patient safety. These facilities include adult, pediatric, and birthing mother patients.

Outside of lab courses and internships, Sacramento State offers five Community Clinics. PT students, under the supervision of licensed practitioners, run these clinics and provide free physical therapy. Adult neurology, orthopedic, amputee, pediatric, and geriatric are the main PT focuses.

9. California State University, Fresno (Fresno, CA)

CSU Fresno
Nightryder84, Science CSUF, CC BY-SA 3.0

At Fresno State, the mission is to educate a diverse body of physical therapists who are committed to lifelong learning. PT students are prepared to examine, evaluate, and develop care plans for patients of all ages. Fresno State students are recognized for their commitment to service and competency in the field.

Multicultural education is a graduation requirement for all students, including those in the PT program. Students can choose from a variety of courses to understand global perspectives and learn about other communities. Through study abroad programs, PT students can learn about different health care systems around the world, from the Czech Republic to Prague.

Physical therapy students can apply their knowledge while participating in community service through the Jan and Bud Richter Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning. Volunteering, service-learning, and educational events are some ways that the university partners with its surrounding community. 

8. University of the Pacific (Stockton, CA)

University of the Pacific
GeneWright, UOP-burnstower, CC BY-SA 3.0

Since 1985, the University of the Pacific has been preparing physical therapists to practice medicine. The 24 dedicated faculty members have 230 combined years of teaching experience. No matter what a student is interested in studying, they can find a professor at the University of the Pacific that is practicing in the field.

Physical therapy education is student-centered, from courses to extracurricular activities. Through student-run leadership and organizations, PT students take an active role in their educational careers. In addition, the program at the University of the Pacific enrolls only 36 students in each class with a 1:8 student ratio.

Many PT students participate in research to learn more about new developments in the field. They work alongside faculty members to translate research into practical application. Under the mentorship of faculty, physical therapy students produce an average of 8 scholarly works each year.

7. Mount Saint Mary’s University (Los Angeles, CA)

Mount Saint Mary's University
Bobak Ha’Eri, Doheny Mansion, CC BY 3.0

The PT program at Mount Saint Mary’s prepares students well for their future careers. In the past two years, 100% of graduates passed their licensure examination. Furthermore, all of the recent physical therapy graduates were able to find employment within one year of graduation. Graduates go on to practice in orthopedics, sports medicine, neurorehabilitation, geriatrics, and many more fields.

Physical therapy students participate in the wellness practicum in their first year at Mount Saint Mary’s. Through this program, PT students provide wellness assessments and training to other healthcare students, staff, and other members of the community. This offers practical critical thinking skills necessary in assessing needs on an individual basis. 

In addition, PT students are instrumental in the health and safety of student-athletes at the university. Teams of students will create team-wide training exercises and readiness screenings to prevent injury. By integrating experiential learning with other departments, PT students are uniquely prepared for interdisciplinary work.

6. Chapman University (Orange, CA)

Chapman University
Bobak Ha’Eri, Chapman, CC BY 3.0

Accredited since 1928, Chapman University is home to the longest running physical therapy program in the United States. Due to its experienced history, the university offers many resources to PT students such as state-of-the-art lab facilities. Chapman’s campus houses many centers including the Motion Analysis, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromuscular laboratories.

The Gait Rehabilitation and Research Lab investigates new solutions for fall prevention. Through the design of new technology, the team’s research benefits individuals with neurological and musculoskeletal disorders. Students learn about perturbation training, activities of daily living, and stride interval complexity under the mentorship of faculty members.

Along with research laboratories, students can participate in clinical experiences across the globe to develop their clinical skills. The physical therapy department offers experiences in Costa Rica and Italy for students to practice their abilities in global communities.

5. Loma Linda University (Loma Linda, CA)

Loma Linda University
Soberclass, Loma linda university chapel, CC BY-SA 4.0

Loma Linda University prepares physical therapists to pursue careers as researchers, educators, and caregivers. Along with a DPT degree, the university has other offerings, including post-professional PT and PT assistant programs. The unique physical therapy PhD curriculum is research-oriented and emphasizes topics from pain science to lifestyle health. 

Loma Linda University offers a residency program with advanced knowledge and skills in the area for students interested in orthopedics. PT students work with clinical supervisors to train in examination, clinical decision-making, and treatment procedures. Members of the orthopedic residency program provide patient care through the Medical Center’s Outpatient Rehabilitation Center.

Loma Linda University offers unique mission trips to help local and global communities. Since 2015, PT students have participated in Street Medicine to provide their services to low-income residents in San Bernardino. Others travel to Haiti, Ethiopia, China, or Mexico to impact physical therapy care worldwide.

4. San Diego State University (San Diego, CA)

San Diego State University
WGeographer, SDSU main, CC BY 1.0

PT students choose SDSU for the cutting-edge curriculum and research facilities. These labs focus on topics from neuroplasticity to rehabilitation biomechanics. The Applied Sensorimotor Research Laboratory at SDSU identifies mechanisms behind stress and pain responses. PT students work alongside researchers to prevent and treat chronic pain disorders.

At SDSU, students generate their own research with the assistance of faculty members. Physical therapy students in the Class of 2021 successfully published their doctoral project work in the journal Military Medicine. Their work centered on post-traumatic neck pain that is found with veterans.

Outside of classes and the lab, there are plenty of options for participation in student organizations. The California Outreach Challenge is a state-wide competition that challenges PT students to volunteer in their local communities. SDSU students were the top 5 finishers in the individual competition, placing 2nd among PT programs.

3. Samuel Merritt University (Oakland, CA)

Samuel Merritt University is home to one of the West’s most advanced healthcare simulation facilities. The Health Sciences Simulation Center is home to computerized mannequins and standardized patients. Through the use of technology, PT students respond to life-like scenarios as part of a healthcare team. This model environment prioritizes patient safety and connects theory and practice. 

The Community Participant Labs are another way for PT students to practice their techniques. As a required experience, students provide physical therapy services to community members under the supervision of licensed faculty. These labs include adult, pediatric, and occupational physical therapy.

Physical therapy students can also bring together theory and practice through the series of capstone courses. Working in small groups, they complete a case report, systematic review, or community-based research project. SMU physical therapy students go on to present their work to their peers or even at national conferences.

2. UCSF – San Francisco State University (San Francisco, CA)

The joint PT program between UCSF and SFSU admits 50 students each year, preparing them for success in their future careers. After graduating, 100% of PT students go on to pass the national licensing exam. Physical therapy alumni have the opportunity to continue their education through a variety of symposiums, lectures, and other resources offered to the PT network.

This top-tier education is present throughout the curriculum, including the residency programs. The Acute Care Physical Therapy Residency Program provides curriculum, mentoring, and teaching experience to prepare students for practice. PT residents learn to deliver patient-centered services with access to resources and clinical expertise from the UCSF health system.

PT students can also provide care through the UCSF PhysFit Wellness Center to translate exercise sciences to physical therapy practice. Physical therapists offer individual and group programs to improve strength, endurance, balance, and function.

1. University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA)

University of Southern California
Padsquad19, USC Student Union, CC BY-SA 3.0

As a top-ranked school of physical therapy, USC is dedicated to shaping the future of the field. The university offers a traditional DPT program and an innovative, hybrid format. Physical therapy students attend classes using the online campus and visit the campus for in-person immersion experiences. Learning from the same renowned faculty as the traditional program, PT students in the hybrid program will be fully immersed in the USC experience.

Julie Tilson, professor of clinical physical therapy, was recently recognized with an Award for Leadership in Education. This is one of the highest awards given by the Academy of Physical Therapy Education and highlights the leadership of USC faculty members. 

They prioritize interdisciplinary collaboration and translational research efforts to provide the best level of patient care. Using 14 laboratories and two research centers, PT students perform research under the guidance of faculty members to study rehabilitation.

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