Just Your Average PA Student 2.0, Part 1


A few weeks ago, the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) released the first Student Report, comprised of data from the 2016 Matriculating Student and End of Program Surveys. While the Matriculating Student Survey (MSS) has been conducted for several years, this is the first year for the End of Program Survey (EOPS), which questions PA students at the end of their program. 


The EOPS is our first look at data from graduating PA students and, paired with the MSS, allows us to have a better understanding of the student experience at the beginning and end of PA school.


Because both surveys were conducted in 2016, these are two different cohorts of students (rather than the same group at the start and end of PA school). 


I like diving into the survey and noticing what's changed year to year. The correlations can be pretty interesting. For instance, in the financial information section of the survey, there seems to be a direct link between gross household income and students being considered a dependent by their parents.


In short, the lower the household income, the less likely it is a student would be regarded as a dependent. Makes sense, right? Students are more likely to be financially independent if their family does not have the means to support them. 


But, some correlations are not so obvious. For example, the percentage of people going directly to PA school after their most recent degree (usually meaning directly after undergrad) has gone down and the percentage of people waiting 3-4 years has increased. But the median age at the start of a PA program has only increased by one year and the average age is stable. So maybe that means more students are getting college credit while in high school?


It would explain how students could spend a few extra years between undergrad and PA school and the median age at matriculation remain stable. We won't know the answer from this survey, but I like to think about how all of the data intermingle. 


At the time of the surveys, the PAEA included 201 PA programs. The response rate of the MSS was 51% (4,570 of 8,939 matriculating students), and the EOPS was 41% (3,289 of 8,059 graduating students).


There's a lot of information useful in this report that combines both survey results. So that we don't skimp, the details of incoming PA students will be outlined this week, and graduating students will be detailed next week. 


Let's look at what made up the average incoming PA student of 2016.



The distribution of PA students and programs represented in the MSS closely aligned with the ratio of PA schools by region — the highest percentage were located in the South, followed by the Northeast, Midwest, and West regions. 


Of those entering PA school in 2016, 44.4% attended a PA school outside of their home state, while 39.2% of those graduating PA school in 2016 (from the EOPS) attended an out of state program. Remember, we have two different cohorts. 


PA students remain mostly female (75.7%), non-Hispanic (91.7%), and white (84.3%). These proportions are basically unchanged from prior surveys of matriculating students in 2014 and 2015. 


The median age at the start of PA school is now 25 years old, a slight increase from 24 in 2014 and 2015. Median age by gender was 24 for females and 26 for males (age by gender was not detailed in prior surveys). 


The percentage of students who are single when entering PA school is also slightly rising, currently 75.8%, previously 72.2% in 2015 and 70.2% in 2014. Most new PA students do not have dependents (87.3%), which is steady from 2015 (86.5%) and 2014 (86%). 


The majority of matriculating PA students (59%) have lived the majority of their lives in the suburbs, with rural (23.9%) and urban (10.9%) environments being the next most common.


Pre-PA Experience

The most common health care positions for future PA students included nursing assistant (22.2%), medical assistant (18.3%), EMT/paramedic (15.6%), and scribe (14.7%). 



The amount of experience of new PA students remained steady from recent years, including direct patient contact experience averaging 137.5 weeks (median=70 weeks) and health care experience (HCE) averaging 49.1 weeks (median=0). The survey did not include a total number of experience hours or hours per week, so this represents the length of employment rather than overall hours. 


About half of respondents (49.7%) ever participated in paid or voluntary community service work, stable from 49% in 2015 and up from 44.4% in 2014.



The majority of PA students (69.8%) completed a bachelor of science degree as their highest level of education before entering PA school. A bachelor of arts was second most common (14.4%), followed by a health- or science-related master's degree (6.6%). 


The most common undergraduate discipline among PA students continues to be natural sciences (e.g., biology, chemistry) (48.1%), which was relatively stable compared to prior years (50.8% in 2014 and 46.9% in 2015). The current survey allowed for greater specification of undergraduate major (including exercise science, kinesiology, and nutrition) compared to previously, which may impact the ability to compare responses from prior surveys. 


The median overall undergraduate GPA of new PA students was 3.61 (mean =3.6) with a standard deviation of 0.27 (which means most students had a GPA somewhere between 3.34 and 3.88). The survey did not include a science GPA (but this GPA was included on the last PAEA Program Survey and averaged 3.5). 


The educational stats of matriculating PA students have not changed much in the years since the first MSS. However, there has been movement in how soon people are attending PA school after completing their most recent degree. 


For the incoming PA students of 2016, 24% earned their degree less than 1 year ago, 40% earned theirs 1-2 years ago, 18% earned theirs 3-4 years ago, and 17% earned their degree 5 or more years ago.


*Categories of 2014 MSS Survey differed from 2015 and 2016, so not all groups could be represented


The biggest changes in these groups included a decreasing number of students in the <1 year category and an increasing number in the 3-4 year group compared to the prior year's survey.  


This shift is interesting. Both the average and median number of weeks that PA students have of PCE and HCE has been relatively steady since 2014. It's possible that in the past, a greater number of students gained more of their health care experience during their undergrad career, and now more students are taking additional time after undergrad to accumulate experience hours. But, it's one of those things we just won't know from the survey. 


The current survey distinguishes between employment experience and volunteer experience, which is not available from previous years' surveys. Future surveys may help to shed some more light on the reasons behind the shift in when people start PA school. 


Decision to Become a PA

Most future PA students (63.2%) decide to pursue a PA career before or during undergrad. Keep in mind this is when people decide, not necessarily when they apply. It takes some time to prepare, so if you are in the 25% who decides during their junior or senior year of college, you may still need a chance to complete prereqs and gain experience before applying. 


The survey also looked at the reasons that new PA students chose the program they ultimately attended. Students were asked to rank 32 influences that impacted their school choice. The top ten were given in the survey and included:

  1. Conversations with program faculty (87.1%)

  2. Campus atmosphere (85%)

  3. Clinical curriculum (83.8%)

  4. Conversations with current students (83.1%)

  5. Program reputation (80.3%)

  6. Program location (80.8%)

  7. Interview experience (79.8%)

  8. Admissions (79.7%)

  9. Class size/student-faculty ration (78%)

  10. Program facilities (71.4%)

The most significant negative influence on program choice was program location (5.8%). [In the prior year's survey, cost was the most significant negative influence on program choice (28.1%). It's not clear from the results whether this year's survey included cost in the 32 influences.] 




We all know that cost is a major component of PA education, and many students face educational expense issues before even applying to PA school. 


About half of PA students (50.4%) in the MSS had outstanding educational loans from college or pre-PA education. Nearly three quarters (74%) of matriculating PA students planned on using student loans to finance the majority of their PA education. 


Only about 15.5% of students had some form of scholarship or award. 


About 42% of PA students starting their program expected to have more than $100,000 in student loan debt from PA school, with about 36% expecting $50,000-$99,999, and 14% anticipating their debt burden to be under $50,000. 


Students starting PA school in 2016 spent a median of $1000 on PA school applications and applied to 6 programs. They were granted two interviews and received one acceptance (median; mean=3.1 interviews, and 1.6 acceptance letters). 


Unfortunately, one of my favorite parts of the survey, which included detailed information on how your chances of getting an interview or acceptance letter leveled off after a certain number of applications, did not appear in the report. If we know that those filling out the survey indeed got into PA school and they averaged applying to 6 programs, it is a decent target to use. In prior years' surveys, the odds of an interview and acceptance dropped off somewhere after 8-12 applications. 


So, there's your average student starting PA school in 2016. There was not a lot of change from the incoming PA students of 2015 in most areas, but there is a shift towards spending more time between undergraduate work or a prior degree and starting PA school. 


This is, by no means, a necessary interval for everyone and may be impacted by when students decide to become a PA. As we have more years worth of surveys, trends over time should become more noticeable. 


Next week, you'll get the break down the very first End of Program Survey of PA students. Some head to head comparisons were made between students at the end of their program compared to other students at the start of theirs. 


It's pretty neat to see how certain things shift in students while they are in a PA program. You might not expect some of the changes that were captured. 


Want to see how this compares to the prior Matriculating Student Survey? Check out last season's post on the incoming class of 2015




Physician Assistant Education Association. 2017. By the Numbers: Student Report 1. Washington, DC: PAEA. doi: 10.17538/SR2017.0001 (All graphs adapted from data, tables, and graphs within report.)

Physician Assistant Education Association, By the Numbers: Matriculating Students 2015, Washington, D.C.: PAEA, 2016. doi: 10.17538/MSS2015.003

Physician Assistant Education Association, By the Numbers: Matriculating Students 2014, Washington, D.C.: PAEA, 2015. doi:10.17538/mss2015.002