While a master’s in occupational therapy is what you need to be an occupational therapist – not to mention one of the highest paying master’s degrees – a different educational path is required to become an occupational therapist assistant. You can become an occupational therapist assistant with either an occupational assistant associate’s degree (an OTA-A) or an occupational therapy assistant baccalaureate degree (an OTA-B). Both paths have their merits, but there are significant differences between them, including the time it takes to earn the degree and the comprehensiveness of the curriculum.
Time to Degree Completion
The most obvious difference between an associate’s degree and a baccalaureate degree is the length of the degree program. Associate’s degrees are commonly referred to as two-year degrees because that’s how long it takes to complete the program when studying full-time. You can usually find OTA-A degree programs in technical schools and community colleges, rather than the four-year colleges and universities that offer OTA-B degrees, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Although the average associate’s degree requires 60 credits of college study, an associate’s degree in occupational therapy assisting often requires more credits, sometimes over 70 credits of study.
An occupational therapy assistant baccalaureate degree, like other degrees at the baccalaureate and bachelor’s level, typically requires four years of study to finish if you take classes full-time. Baccalaureate programs often require 120 college credits, and the OTA-B generally has similar credit requirements. If you’re wondering why the number of credits required for a baccalaureate degree isn’t double what is required for an OTA-A degree, it’s largely because OTA programs that have been accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) must include certain fieldwork requirements, regardless of whether the degree awarded is an OTA-A or an OTA-B.
Some students choose to earn their OTA-A to get into the workforce faster and then use a post-professional degree completion program to acquire their OTA-B degree, allowing them to enjoy the best of both worlds.
Academic Breadth of Curriculum
OTA-B programs aren’t just longer. They are also more comprehensive, requiring additional coursework in both general education and in your major program of study. One of the biggest distinctions between OTA-A and OTA-B programs is how much you actually gain out of the program. The OTA-A degree program covers the coursework required to become licensed and certified as an occupational therapy assistant. That includes fieldwork experience that lasts for a minimum of 16 weeks, according to the BLS. However, the curriculum of a baccalaureate program for aspiring occupational therapy assistants is more in-depth and encompasses a baccalaureate project requirement, according to the American Occupational Therapy Association.
If you compare the curriculum of an OTA-A program with an OTA-B program, you will notice both similarities and differences in the course requirements. An OTA-A program will typically include coursework in kinesiology and pathophysiology for rehab health practitioners. You will learn the fundamentals of rehabilitation treatment and the tests and measurements occupational therapy assistants use in their work. Students may also explore coursework in different areas of specialization in their field, including pediatric occupational therapy, gerontologic occupational therapy, psychosocial occupational therapy and the techniques used to lead therapeutic group activities.
All of these topics are typically covered in the curriculum of an OTA-B program, as well, but programs at the baccalaureate level also include much more. OTA-B degree programs may include additional courses in kinesiology and functional anatomy. They may allow you to complete more focused coursework in occupational therapy interventions for musculoskeletal conditions, neuromuscular conditions, and mental health and wellness. Further study in occupational performance at different stages of development and the lifespan, as well as advanced clinical techniques for occupational therapy assisting, is also common.
The baccalaureate project that is a hallmark of OTA-B programs can often be tailored to the student’s professional interests. Whether working independently or in a group, you could spend your project cultivating more skills and knowledge in the clinical practice of occupational therapy assisting, but you could also focus your project on advocacy, leadership, education or administration, according to the American Occupational Therapy Association.
An associate’s degree is the highest level of education for the vast majority – 82 percent – of occupational assistants, according to O*NET. However, pursuing a bachelor’s degree will equip you with a deeper understanding of the field of occupational therapy assisting.