Online respiratory therapist degrees

Breathing trouble can have a serious impact on one's quality of life. Whether they provide emergency assistance in an urgent care facility or help manage chronic difficulty like asthma, emphysema and other cardiopulmonary disorders, respiratory therapists are front-line practitioners in the fight to help people breathe regularly and comfortably.

Like many vital health care specialties, campus-based and online respiratory therapist degrees can be found at colleges and medical career centers all over the country. Here's some National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data on the number of schools in each of eight national regions that offer respiratory therapy training online and in a traditional classroom setting:

Region No. of schools offering respiratory therapy degrees No. of schools with online respiratory therapy programs No. of schools offering respiratory therapy technology degrees No. of schools with online respiratory therapy technology programs
Far West (CA. OR, WA, NV, AK, HI) 43 2 6 0
Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, UT, WY, CO) 16 2 0 0
Southwest (AZ, NM, TX, OK) 51 4 5 2
Plains (MO, KS, IA, NE, MN, ND, SD) 45 5 1 0
Southeast (AR, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, WV) 123 3 10 2
Great Lakes (IL, IN, OH, MI, WI) 60 4 6 0
Mideast (PA, NY, NJ, DE, MD, D.C.) 55 1 7 0
New England (CT, MA, RI, VT, NH, ME) 18 0 3 0
Total (all 50 states) 411 21 38 4

Entry-level respiratory therapist degrees

It typically requires two years or less in school to qualify for an entry-level job in respiratory therapy. Here's some info about on-campus and online degrees in respiratory therapy at the undergraduate level:

  • Associate degrees - Most respiratory therapists need an associate degree to begin practicing, and a wide array of institutions offer the necessary training. Subjects covered in respiratory therapy associate degree programs include anatomy and physiology, healthcare documentation, medical terminology, disease management, cardiopulmonary pharmacology, perinatal and pediatric care, bronchial hygiene, critical care techniques and fundamentals of clinical practice.
  • Bachelor's degrees - Students looking to move up the respiratory therapy career ladder may need to shore up their training with a bachelor's degree in respiratory therapy before applying for advanced positions. Programs at this level typically cover such courses as clinical ethics, pulmonary rehabilitation, mechanical ventilation theory, health care emergency management, sleep medicine and health care leadership while also providing a comprehensive schedule of general education courses in the sciences, humanities and math.
  • Non-degree study - Respiratory therapy is a complex and somewhat delicate field, and programs of study that culminate in less than an associate degree are relatively rare as a result. It may be possible to take single courses in respiratory therapy, however, if an individual institution permits students to enroll in introductory sections of specialties to test their interest.

Some health specialties training can be quite difficult to translate to the virtual classroom, but respiratory therapy degrees do not fit that description. Several schools offer associate and bachelor's degrees in respiratory therapy online, with certain programs featuring clinical experience sections that meet occasionally on campus or at associated satellite learning centers.

Advanced-degree respiratory therapist programs

Careers in health care leadership are growing right alongside the job market for practitioners, and employers of many of the top-tier jobs in respiratory therapy and other specialties may prefer candidates who have taken their education to the next level. Here's some description of the graduate degrees available for respiratory therapists:

  • Master's degree programs - Earning a Master of Science (MS) degree in respiratory therapy can help you further develop your scholarly, practical and administrative skills to the level expected of confirmed experts in the field. Courses such as clinical trial design, protocol development, ethical and strategic leadership, application of research and advanced pulmonary physiology combine to give master's degree graduates a comprehensive capstone education that prepares them to contribute to the field through informed decision making, state and national policy advisement and insightful research and reporting.
  • Doctorate programs - A master's-level education is typically considered the terminal degree for respiratory therapists, so postgraduate credentials such as Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) must be earned in programs with a broader scope of study. Some institutions offer a Ph.D. in health and medical sciences, the larger category of professions to which respiratory therapy typically belongs, and an advisor may be able to point you toward a similarly appropriate doctoral degree if you've got your heart set on a Ph.D.
  • Graduate certificates - Non-degree graduate programs that specifically name respiratory therapy as their subject are somewhat scarce, perhaps owing to the primarily administrative leanings of most post-bachelor's programs in technical health care disciplines. Graduate certificates in health science, health care administration and clinical research administration can be found, however, and may add value to a career that began with a respiratory therapist degree.

Online study can be a welcome option for students at the graduate level, particularly for busy working professionals who may have a hard time dedicating the number of hours per year necessary to earn a degree on a traditional campus. Hybrid programs, during which you split class time between a brick-and-mortar classroom and the virtual environment, may also be available.

Q&A with an expert

Lorie L. Phillips, respiratory care professor and program coordinator at Mohawk Valley Community College

Lorie L. Phillips, respiratory care professor and program coordinator at Mohawk Valley Community CollegeWhy would you encourage someone to pursue a degree in respiratory therapy?

LP: The Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the U.S. Department of Labor projects employment for respiratory therapists to increase by 12% through 2024. Great career for those who want to help people with breathing difficulties (asthma/COPD education) or help assist people with smoking cessation.

What are the most common educational paths for students interested in a respiratory therapy career?

LP: Most students enter a Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care (CoARC) accredited college AAS or BS degree program in respiratory care that offers significant clinical experience at a variety of venues to allow students to gain experience in neonatal/pediatric/adult acute care and critical care, adult long term care, sleep medicine, home care and pulmonary diagnostics.

Are there major workplace differences between associate degrees and bachelor's degrees in respiratory therapy?

LP: Not really, though BS degrees are preferred for respiratory department managers and are required for respiratory educators (at a minimum). The goal of the profession is to require a BS degree as the entry level degree for the profession by 2020.

Why might an employer prefer one degree level over another?

LP: Higher educational degrees and additional credentialing allow candidates to be better prepared to assume higher level duties that include management, education and/or research. BS degrees are preferred by forward-looking respiratory departments to bring their workforce into compliance with the 2020 minimum professional educational goals.

Is there anything about respiratory therapy that would've been helpful to know when you were pursuing your own education?

LP: I completed my education in respiratory care over 4 decades ago, when the profession was in its infancy; the profession has evolved significantly over that time. There are many additional career paths available to respiratory care graduates in 2016.

What advice would you have for a student who is just beginning to consider respiratory therapy as a career path?

LP: Respiratory therapy is a great entry-level medical career. Graduates can work with patients of all ages (premature babies through the elderly) and gain experience in acute care, critical care, long term care, rehabilitative care, home care, transport, and/or pulmonary diagnostics (PFTs, sleep medicine, ECGs, etc). They can get involved in all levels of patient care in addition to management, education, and research. They can work in educational institutions, hospitals, sleep labs, diagnostic labs, physician offices, and long term care centers to name a few. Respiratory therapy provides a wonderful foundation for additional education to become a physician assistant or doctor.

Types of respiratory therapist careers

Respiratory therapist degrees give you specialized preparation for a specific career, but they also teach general clinical skills that can be used in other professions. Here's a table that shows other occupations where you can make use of your respiratory therapy training, in some cases with supplementary experience or education, along with some employment and salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Occupation title National mean annual salary
Projected job growth
Total U.S. employment
Entry-level education
Respiratory therapist $59,640 12 percent 120,730 Associate degree
Respiratory therapy technician $49,720 -2 percent 10,610 Bachelor's degree
Home health aide $22,870 38 percent 913,500 Bachelor's degree
Licensed practical/vocational nurse $44,030 16 percent 719,900 Bachelor's degree
Medical assistant $31,910 23 percent 591,300 Bachelor's degree
Registered nurse $71,000 16 percent 2,751,000 Bachelor's degree

Common misconceptions about respiratory therapist degrees

It's reasonable that there would be a few mistaken ideas about respiratory therapy degrees, given that it's a relatively young health care discipline and medical technician training in general is booming right now. Here are a few of the more common ones; make sure you're not approaching your search for a degree with any of these misconceptions in mind:

Misconception: Studying respiratory therapy is an easy ticket to a well-paying job in health care.

  • Fact: It's true that the average salary for respiratory therapist jobs is fairly comfortable, but earning the degree it takes to get there isn't exactly a cake walk. Academic classes in chemistry, physics, anatomy, math, pharmacology and microbiology can require a significant amount of study time to pass, for starters, and unless you've already got health care experience the clinical procedures coursework is likely to be unlike anything you've ever learned.

Misconception: Respiratory therapist degrees lead to a career with limited advancement potential.

  • Fact: Respiratory therapists who gain a few years of experience in the workforce after graduation can choose the path they take next. Staying put in respiratory therapy is certainly an option, but continuing your education to the bachelor's level, taking a few health care administration courses or pivoting into a nursing degree can set you up to move into a senior therapist position, take a desk job as a clinical administrator or get on an established advancement track in the nursing profession.

Misconception: Employers think of online degrees as worth less than degrees earned on campus.

  • Fact: It's true that institutions are sometimes slow to embrace change, and online respiratory therapist degrees may have inspired skepticism in hiring managers at some clinical institutions when they first started showing up. Studies from the last couple of years, however, show that employers are beginning to understand that a candidate's ability to do the job they're applying for is more important than the manner in which they earned their degree.

How can I enroll in an online respiratory therapy degree program?

Growth in the field of health care shows no signs of slowing, and admissions representatives or program administrators in the health care specialties are glad to help you find your place in the world of health careers. Check out our listings below, find a few that appeal to you and get in touch to find out how to start your journey to a stable career in the medical profession.


  1. College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed March 18, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
  2. School pages, accessed March 26, 2016: Courses, Respiratory Therapy, Pima Medical Institute, http://pmi.edu/Programs/Associate/Respiratory-Therapy/LearnMore; Respiratory Therapy, Armstrong University, https://www.armstrong.edu/academic-departments/respiratory-therapy; Respiratory Therapist Program, Independence University, http://www.independence.edu/respiratory-therapy-as; Online Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Therapy, University of Cincinnati, http://www.independence.edu/respiratory-therapy-as; Respiratory Therapy: Bachelor of Science, Armstrong University, https://www.armstrong.edu/academic-departments/rt-bachelor-of-science-in-respiratory-therapy; Respiratory Therapy: Online Bachelor's Degree Completion Program, University of Missouri, RRT to Bachelor Degree Completion Program, Boise State University, http://hs.boisestate.edu/respcare/completion/; Respiratory Care - Masters, Loma Linda University, http://alliedhealth.llu.edu/academics/cardiopulmonary-sciences/respiratory-care-therapy/respiratory-care-masters; Master of Respiratory Care, Youngstown State University, http://web.ysu.edu/bchhs/mrc; Respiratory Therapy Masters Online, University of Mary, http://www.umary.edu/academics/programs/ms-respiratory-therapy.php; Masters Degree Respiratory Care Leadership, Northeastern University, http://www.cps.neu.edu/degree-programs/graduate/masters-degrees/masters-respiratory-care-leadership.php; PhD in Health Sciences, Seton Hall University, https://www13.shu.edu/academics/gradmeded/phd-health-sciences/index.cfm; Graduate Certificate in Health Administration, The University of Arizona, https://publichealth.arizona.edu/academics/certificates/health-administration; Health Sciences Graduate Certificate, University of South Florida, http://www.usf.edu/innovative-education/programs/graduate-certificates/health-sciences.aspx; Online Clinical Research Management Certificate, Arizona State University, http://asuonline.asu.edu/online-degree-programs/certificates/graduate-certificate-clinical-research-management; Online Graduate Certificate in Clinical Investigation, Boston University, http://www.bu.edu/online/programs/certificate-programs/clinical-investigation.html; Graduate Certificate in Clinical Research Administration, Walden University, https://www.waldenu.edu/certificates/clinical-research-administration/curriculum;
  3. Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed March 18, 2016: Respiratory Therapists, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Healthcare/Respiratory-therapists.htm; Home Health Aides, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/home-health-aides.htm; Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/licensed-practical-and-licensed-vocational-nurses.htm; Medical Assistants, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-assistants.htm; Registered Nurses, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm;
  4. Respiratory Therapy Technicians, Occupational Information Network, accessed March 18, 2016, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-2054.00
  5. May 2015 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed May 1, 2016, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm;
  6. The History of Respiratory Therapy, American Association for Respiratory Care, accessed March 29, 2016, https://www.aarc.org/aarc/timeline-history/
  7. How Employers View Your Online Bachelor's Degree, U.S. News and World Report, Devon Haynie, March 4, 2014, accessed March 29, 2016, http://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/articles/2014/02/28/what-employers-really-think-about-your-online-bachelors-degree
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