If they played baseball, the physical therapy students at St. Ambrose University would be batting one thousand. Or you might say that they got grades of 100 on three big tests.

All members of the December 2011 class graduated on time with doctor of physical therapy degrees from the Davenport university, passed the National Physical Therapy Examination on the first attempt to become licensed and found employment.

1.000, 1.000, 1.000 or 100, 100, 100. Take your choice, but it’s a perfect score regardless.

It’s not the first time a St. Ambrose class has achieved such success — it also occurred two years ago, officials said. But it puts the university in some lofty company: Out of 194 physical therapy education programs that report to the national licensing federation, only 34 matched the Ambrose success rate. That’s 17 percent of all such programs in the nation.

“We do a good job of preparing our students to be physical therapists,” said Michael Puthoff, the program’s director. “We have a good faculty who understands what our students have to do to be physical therapists. We also have a well-rounded curriculum that educates the students in different practices.”

The physical therapy doctorate-level degree is one of the school’s flagship programs and a source of much pride at St. Ambrose, said Sandy Cassady, the dean of the College of Health and Human Services. The success rate enjoyed over the years ensures that there is a strong field of students hoping to be admitted, she pointed out.

Student feedback

One student who appreciates the program is Jessica Starykowicz, 24, of Long Grove, Ill. She’s completed one year of coursework and will soon begin her second year in the 2 1/2-year program.

“I think our faculty is incredible,” said Starykowicz, who graduated with an agricultural engineering degree from Iowa State University in 2010. “That’s what makes our program so wonderful. They all know what everyone else is teaching and they weave the curriculum together. By the time you learn one topic, you really get a grasp on the topic and how to apply it.”

Starykowicz got interested in the medical field nine years ago, after she broke her collarbone and shattered a shoulder. Those injuries have healed, but the experience taught her something about how to treat patients. She enjoys the analytical part of the therapeutic process — finding a cause for the pain and then figuring out how to alleviate it.

Katie Scheckel is a satisfied graduate of the program. At 24 years of age, she lives in Taylor Ridge, Ill., and works at Rock Valley Physical Therapy. Scheckel’s on a fast track. After her December graduation, she entered an orthopedic residency at Rock Valley and will emerge with a specialization in orthopedics.

While her undergraduate work was also at St. Ambrose, Scheckel stayed with the school because of the physical therapy faculty.

“I wasn’t just another body taking up space,” she said.

Debt, job outlook

The program costs a student about $75,000 to complete, said Puthoff, the program director. All of the financial details are posted on the St. Ambrose website — sau.edu. “We try to be very up-front with the students,” he added.

The 2011 graduates averaged a starting salary of $61,000. “Many of our students do take out loans, but then they find well-paying jobs. It’s a good return on their investment,” Puthoff said.

Starykowicz investigated several programs before she chose St. Ambrose and found that the others were much more expensive. She knew the cost going into the program, and while allowing for the fact that she will have some debt after graduating, she said the anticipated starting salary will help her pay that off.

She also pointed out that her chosen field is expected to grow significantly in the coming years because of the baby boom generation’s health needs. That is supported by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, which states in its job outlook: “Employment of physical therapists is expected to increase 39 percent from 2010 to 2020, much faster than the average for all occupations.”

Scheckel agreed with Starykowicz. “If you go into any sort of college and get more than one degree, you’ll have some debt, no matter what,” she said. “But I’ll have a job to deal with it.

“It would be more difficult if I’d chosen another career field,” Scheckel added.

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