Respiratory Therapy Degree Advancement

Young RT Volunteers

What is “degree advancement?”

According to the CoARC Policy 12.03, a degree advancement program in respiratory care is “an educational program designed specifically to meet the needs of practicing respiratory therapists with an RRT who, having already completed an accredited respiratory care program with an entry into respiratory care professional practice degree wish to obtain advanced training in respiratory care.” Respiratory therapy degree advancement programs provide a pathway for respiratory therapists who have earned an associate’s degree (AS) to earn a bachelor’s degree (BS). The degree titles may vary but a degree completion program will include a respiratory therapy core curriculum as well as general education requirements.

Respiratory therapists who have earned a BS degree may wish to advance their degree to a master’s degree (MS) in respiratory therapy. There are currently three MS programs with an emphasis in respiratory therapy. Respiratory therapists pursuing an MS degree will have met pre-requisite requirements — such as previously earned BS degree, grade point average (GPA) minimum, GRE scores, etc. — prior to acceptance into the program of study. The program of study is usually a mixture of respiratory therapy specific courses as well as core curriculum focusing on education, research, management, and/or health policy. Each program is structured differently, so it is important to review the program curriculum carefully before committing to a program of study.

Why should I advance my degree?

There are many personal and professional benefits to earning an advanced degree in respiratory therapy. One of the more common motivators to earning a higher degree is compensation. The AARC 2014 Human Resources Survey found that each increase in academic degree was associated with an increase in annual compensation by at least $3,000. This doesn’t mean that the respiratory therapist’s current employer will approve a salary raise simply because the respiratory therapist has earned an advanced degree. However, the new skills and knowledge gained with the advanced degree may qualify the respiratory therapist for a promotion or position that requires a higher degree.

The respiratory therapist might also qualify for a different role in healthcare as a result of the earned degree, such as disease manager, case manager, or clinical specialist. An advanced degree would also provide the respiratory therapist with an educational pathway to becoming a manager, formal educator, or researcher. In 2007, the U.S. Public Health Service recognized that respiratory therapists with BS or MS degrees are eligible to become commissioned officers in the Clinical and Rehabilitation Therapist category.

Why does the AARC care about my degree?

The vision statement of the AARC is to “encourage and promote professional excellence, advance the science and practice of respiratory care, and serve as an advocate for patients, their families, the public, the profession and the respiratory therapist.” The 2015–2020 AARC Strategic Plan sets forth several key objectives to not only advance the profession but to also ensure safe and effective respiratory care. Within the strategic plan, the AARC promotes advancement and practice expansion for respiratory therapists as well as the continuing development of the respiratory care workforce. The AARC understands that advanced education is the key to accomplishing these goals.

What college should I attend to advance my degree?

Currently, there are  57 AS degree to BS degree advancement programs in 31 states. Many of these degree advancement programs are available online and have flexible timelines for degree completion to make the option as attractive as possible to the respiratory therapist. There are many questions to ask when deciding which of these degree advancement options is a good fit. Here is a list of questions to ask the program advisor to get more information on the program.

  • How many core credits are required in the program of study?
  • How many minimum credits are required by the college to qualify for graduation?
  • Will my prior college credits transfer to the college?
  • If so, how will my prior college credits satisfy the program requirements?
  • Does the program require the RRT credential prior to acceptance?
  • How is the course content delivered (on-campus, online, or a combination of both)?
  • Will I be required to physically visit the college during my course of study?
  • Does the college set a time limit on how long it takes to complete my degree?
  • Does the college require transfer credits to be recently earned (i.e. within the last 5 years, within the last 10 years, etc.)?
  • What is the tuition cost per credit hour?
  • What is the tuition cost for the program?
  • Does the college charge a different fee for out-of-state students?
  • Is this program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC)? Note: In 2015, the CoARC developed a set of standards for degree advancement programs. However, this is a voluntary process. If the college that sponsors the degree advancement program also has an entry-to-practice respiratory care program, the quality of that program as noted on the CoARC Programmatic Outcomes Data may indicate the quality of the degree advancement program.
  • Is the academic institution accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education?

How many classes will I have to take to earn my advanced degree?

The number of classes needed to complete the advanced degree will depend on how many courses the respiratory therapist has previously completed. The degree program will have set core course requirements as well as general education requirements and prior respiratory therapy educational requirements, likely including earning the Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) credential from the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). When exploring the potential for earning the advanced degree, it is important to provide the program advisor with a copy of past college transcripts for an accurate credit audit and determination of what courses will be needed to earn the degree.

Which of my previous credits will transfer to the new college?

Degree advancement programs usually audit the candidate’s college transcripts and determine which program requirements have been met and which requirements are left to complete. The candidate then completes the remaining coursework to earn a bachelor degree at that institution. However, there are several aspects of credit transfer of which respiratory therapists need to be aware as they seek to advance their degrees. Learn more about credit transfer.

How much will it cost to advance my degree?

Some, though not all, employers provide tuition reimbursement for advanced degrees. The AARC strongly encourages each respiratory therapist to inquire about tuition reimbursement with his/her employer. When inquiring, be sure to ask about maximum amount allowed per year, maximum amount allowed per employee, how the reimbursement is awarded (e.g. the employee must earn a specific grade to qualify for reimbursement), and whether or not the employer requires a certain term of service in exchange for tuition reimbursement. The respiratory therapy manager or human resources manager will be able to provide this information. Also, the AARC has compiled information on scholarships and loans, including scholarships from the American Respiratory Care Foundation (ARCF), the philanthropic arm of the profession.