While many differences can be found between the 200+ accredited PA programs, some commonalities and trends can also be observed. In the latest Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) release, By the Numbers: Program Report 32: Data from the 2016 Program Survey, we get a glimpse of these PA program characteristics.
This report covers the 2015-2016 academic year and the 2016 cohort (students who entered into a PA program with an expected graduation date in 2016). All 209 PA programs that were accredited at the time of the survey participated.
Here are a few of the highlights.
PA Program Factors
The number of PA programs awarding a master's degree has continued to grow to 96.7% (95.9% in the prior year's survey). The organization that grants accreditation to PA programs, ARC-PA, requires that all programs applying for provisional accreditation be masters-level programs.
After 2020, all PA programs, regardless of accreditation status, will be required to grant masters degrees. So, in future surveys, this number will continue to rise until it hits 100%. Programs that do not comply with the requirement will be phased out.
PA programs are more commonly found at private schools (67%) rather than public (31.3%). And, the highest concentration of PA programs continues to be in the Northeast (64, 30.6%) and South (69, 33%), while the West has the fewest number of programs (27, 12.9%). Sorry Californians.
The most common program length continues to be 27 months, followed by 24 and 28.
The average student-to-faculty ratio was 15.4. This ratio was not broken down by accreditation status in this year's survey. But, ratios were given comparing public (14.5) to private (15.9) programs and census regions. The Northeast had the highest student to faculty ratio at 15.8, and the West has the lowest at 13.6.
There was a slight increase (33% to 35%) in PA programs who reported paying for clinical sites and/or clinical preceptors.
Paying for rotations is not a reflection of the quality of the program. It represents the increased difficulty in obtaining an adequate number of clinical sites needed to accommodate the growing number of provider trainees. [Read more about clinical site shortages.] But, this is an expense to the program, which may be passed along to students in the form of tuition.
Also, programs that have more difficulty securing clinical training sites may also have an increased frequency of remote rotations for students in the program.
Seventy-four programs (35.4%) reported that students are responsible for out-of-pocket expenses for remote rotation housing.
On average, students of these programs spent $3,496 for housing related to these rotations (up from $2,267 in the prior survey). So, keep this in mind when considering the total cost of PA school — it goes beyond just tuition.
And to continue the bad-money-news streak, tuition costs continue to climb for PA programs at both public and private schools.
In-state tuition at public schools increased to an average of $43,550 for the length of the program (from $40,918 last year, and $38,794 two years ago). Private school tuition averaged nearly double at $84,349 (compared to $81,555 last year, and $74,475 two years ago).
Incidental fees (for textbooks, diagnostic equipment, software, and other academic expenses) added an average of $5,767 and $5,374 to public and private programs, respectively.
In summary, PA school is expensive and getting more expensive every year. Make sure you develop a plan of how you'll deal with the cost.
PA Student Factors
A majority of PA programs filled their incoming first-year class capacity, but 14% did not (down from 16% the prior year).
Of the 28 programs that did not fill to capacity, "students voluntarily withdrawing" was the most common reason. However, 32.1% of programs cited clinical rotation constraints as the reason for not filling their seats, which was up from 11.5% the prior year.
The average first-year capacity of PA programs was 48.2 students (up slightly from 47 students). (In 1984-1985, the average first-year class enrollment was 24.1 students.) There was a total of 8,939 first-year students enrolled (up slightly from 1,036 students in 1984-1985 ;)).
The average age of first-year PA students was 25.8 (I think we can safely call that the same as the prior year's average of 25.7).
The average overall undergraduate GPA of students was 3.55 (median also 3.55), and science GPA was 3.5 (median also 3.5).
The GRE was a required prerequisite exam in 51.2% of programs and 15% of programs accepted either the GRE or MCAT. Average GRE scores were reported this time around and included 154.8 in verbal reasoning, 153.2 in quantitative reasoning, and 4.0 in analytical writing.
The average amount of experience of matriculating students was reported slightly differently than in prior years, with patient contact experience (PCE) listed separately from other health care experience (HCE).
Of the 117 programs responding to this question on student experience, the average PCE among matriculating students was 2,875.5 hours (median=2,300, SD=480). The average HCE was 888.9 hours (median=907, SD=475.9) while shadowing hours averaged 163.2 (median=102.5, SD=202.1).
Programs that tracked community service had first-year students who averaged 888.9 hours (median=901, SD 475.9) at the time of matriculation.
Okay. Now for what I consider to be the heart-breaker section of the survey.
Of the 2016 cohort, 94.2% graduated (an increase compared to 90.8% last year, and on par with 94.1% two years ago), with 2.5% decelerated to a delayed graduation or to the next cohort, 1.5% withdrew, and 1.7% were dismissed.
The most common reason for withdrawal was "personal or medical reasons" (46.7%). Overall, the graduation rates look pretty darn good. So, why do I call this the heart-breaker section?
Those small percentages of dismissed and withdrawn students represent 285 individuals who once believed becoming a PA was their dream.
They worked for months or maybe years to build up experience and take prerequisite courses. They earned scholarships and took out student loans to cover the expense of PA school. All of that effort, and it still didn't work out.
On top of that, 285 other applicants didn't get into PA school that year because the seats were taken.
They may have just barely missed the cut and had to wait until the following year, gaining more experience and incurring more expense before applying in the next cycle. Or maybe they gave up and never applied again.
All this to say — be very sure that becoming a PA is what you want to do. Sure, we can't know what happened in these 285 cases.
But at least in some, students walked away from PA school because they realized it wasn't what they wanted to do. Or the school realized it for them.
Take time with your decision. Shadow PAs. Talk to PAs and current students. Be clear about what you're getting into and be sure it's what you want to do with your life.
This latest PAEA program report can help you to see what an "average" PA program looks like. With this information, you can better understand what to expect in a PA school and decide what's most important to you.
Remember, picking a PA school is about more than the minimum requirements and if they'll "have you." Decide what's important to you in a program. Is it program length, start month, total cost, or graduation rates?
By focusing on programs that have what you want as a first step, you'll find the PA schools that are the best fit for you.
Physician Assistant Education Association, By the Numbers: Program Report 32: Data from the 2016 Program Survey,
Washington, DC: PAEA; 2017. doi: 10.17538/PR32.2017
Physician Assistant Education Association, By the Numbers: Program Report 31, Washington, DC: PAEA, 2016. doi:10.17538/PS31.2016
Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. ARC-PA Standards Degree Deadline Issue.