A vital part of preparing for PA school is deciding on which programs to target. Pre-PAs students need to consider two main aspects when making this decision: personal competitiveness factors and PA program factors.
Competitiveness factors typically cause the most angst — GPA, HCE, PCE, degree field, and prerequisite course requirements. These are the factors required by a school that you have the opportunity to improve.
Program factors are those that are not controlled by the pre-PA student — location, program duration, cost, PANCE pass rates, and accreditation status. These are outside of your control, but they certainly play a role in where you choose to apply.
Because of the number of accredited PA programs (218 and counting), many pre-PA students start their search by eliminating programs based on a basic mix of competitiveness and PA program factors.
Often, accreditation status is one of these early factors used to determine which programs to take out of the running. Students often focus on continued-status programs and sometimes, as a stretch, considering provisional-status programs.
This seems like an obvious strategy to pare down your options. You want to go to a school with a good track record that will guarantee your eligibility to graduate from an accredited program.
However, this idea is only half right. Let’s review what accreditation means to understand the misconceptions around accreditation.
What is accreditation?
For PA programs in the U.S., the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) is the accrediting agency that defines the standards for physician assistant education and evaluating physician assistant educational programs. ARC-PA ensures compliance with these standards through peer review of PA programs.
Why does it matter?
The accreditation process is voluntary, but graduation from an accredited program is required to take the PA certifying boards (PANCE) and for state licensure. So, every PA program goes through the voluntary process if they expect to have any applicants.
Did you know that if a program is accredited when you matriculate, then you will graduate from an accredited program? You will be eligible to sit for the PANCE. You will be a full-on PA when you pass.
Let me be very clear about this. If your PA program is on ANY active accreditation status (yes, even probationary) on day 1 of your PA school career and then loses accreditation, the program that you will have completed 2-3 years later was an accredited program.
I see this misinterpreted all of the time, but this is the fact. This has been the policy of NCCPA since 2003. In order to be eligible for the PANCE, NCCPA requires that “students successfully complete a program that was accredited at the time the student matriculated.” All that you need is accreditation on day 1.
I apologize if increasing your pool of potential schools stresses you out, but there are good reasons you might want to expand your choices in this area that we will explore.
Accreditation types & considerations
Accreditation-Continued is an accreditation status granted to a currently accredited program (continued, provisional, or probationary) that is in compliance with ARC-PA standards. An established PA program may be accredited for a maximum length of 10 years before the next comprehensive review by ARC-PA is required.
What to consider
A continued-status program is established and has usually ironed out the kinks with both the didact program and clinical rotations. Because these programs are better established, they will have the highest number of applicants.
Before you commit to applying to only continued-status programs, consider your main reasons for doing so.
Finding an adequate number of preceptors and site placements can be problematic for new and developing programs, but due to increasing class sizes, continued-status programs can struggle with the same problem. If this is a primary reason you are targeting continued status programs, I encourage you to consider the possibility of provisional and probationary options.
Accreditation-Provisional is an accreditation status granted to a new PA program that has met the ARC-PA standards. Provisional status is limited to five years from the time of matriculation of the first class.
While a provisional status does not guarantee eventual continued status, this level of accreditation means that a PA program has a solid plan that, if implemented as outlined, should result in continuing accreditation.
What to consider
A provisional program is a newer program, with both the curriculum and clinical rotations less established than a continuing program. This may deter some applicants, resulting in fewer applications. These schools should definitely be on your radar if you are concerned about your competitiveness.
Provisional does not necessarily indicate that a program is brand new as programs may be on provisional status for up to 5 years. You can determine program age by the date of first accreditation.
Also, a few new PA programs have been developed at universities with established medical schools. Even the diehard only-continuing-status-schools-for-me student should take a look at these programs.
Schools with medical programs have experience developing a training program based on the medical model and have established relationships with preceptors, which may foster the growth of a PA program. If you are wary about provisional programs, one that is tied to a university with a medical school should bring you some comfort.
Accreditation-Probation is a temporary status of accreditation granted to a program with accreditation-provisional or accreditation-continued status that does not meet the ARC-PA standards.
Probation status is limited to 2 years. A program that fails to complete the requirements needed to re-establish provisional or continuing accreditation risks withdrawal of accreditation.
Accreditation-Administrative Probation is granted due to the failure of a program to comply with an administrative requirement, like failing to pay fees or submit required reports.
What to consider
Why is the program on probation? What are they doing to correct it? If you are otherwise interested in a PA program, ask these questions of the program. They should be able to openly answer these for you.
Is it academic or administrative probation? Administrative probation is less serious than standard probation but still ask how a program is working to fix this.
A program in this status is a great option for applicants who are less competitive. The probationary status scares off many applicants and increases your chances of acceptance.
Remember, a program that is accredited when you matriculate is an accredited PA program. If you meet all of the requirements for graduation from a program on probation, you will be eligible to take the PANCE and apply for state licensure.
Even candidates who are quite competitive may consider a probationary program. Being on probation may seriously improve the quality of a program, with the overhaul resulting in an even more robust program than some continued status programs.
One of my colleagues, who is also a relatively recent graduate, experienced this with her PA program. Despite the program being on probation, they laid out a clear plan to work towards continued accreditation and were very open about the plan with potential students. After her interview, the program became my colleague’s top choice. She has nothing but great things to say about her experience, and her alma mater is now back to accreditation-continued status.
Developing-Not Accredited programs are new programs that are working towards accreditation, but have not yet passed ARC-PA accreditation review. There is no guarantee that the program will be accredited. A list of developing programs is available at ARC-PA website. Details of the programs, including potential start dates, are available through the PAEA program directory.
What to consider
If you are early in your pre-PA planning, knowing where and when new programs will be available will help you to understand what options you will have when applying. Once accredited, developing programs will be in provisional status and can start taking applications.
A brand new program does not equate to inexperienced faculty. A few years after I graduated PA school, a new PA program opened in the same city, bringing the total to three. The new PA program recruited faculty from the other established program and, in turn, the other established program recruited faculty from my program.
A new program may end up with more experienced faculty than a well-established one, so do not write off a new program with the assumption that the faculty will have less teaching experience.
A note about re-accreditation dates
There is one scenario where you are at potential risk of being affected by a program’s loss of accreditation. It is when a probationary-status program will undergo recredentialing between when you would be accepted and your date of matriculation.
If the program loses accreditation in that window, then you were accepted at a non-accredited program and should not go. The chance that a program on probation will fall in this time frame for you is quite small, but you can see all scheduled dates of program credentialing reviews at the ARC-PA website.
The re-accreditation year can be a little hectic for a PA program at any level of accreditation. This is usually not overly disruptive to the students but be aware that faculty will be quite busy during that time, which may have some impact on the rest of the program. I would not rule out a program based on this, just something to keep in mind.
With the abundance of PA programs now available, it can be tempting to find ways to eliminate large groups of schools in order to focus your search. This can certainly be done, but I encourage you to be mindful of how you go about this.
Consider what is most important to you in a program and what attributes of yours make you competitive. Avoid eliminating schools based solely on accreditation; it may keep you from finding your ideal program.
Your search is much more likely to be successful if you examine what is most important to you in a program. Start by identifying a few programs that seem like a good fit for you, and use these as a guide in your search.
Have you signed up for your free PA Program Planning Worksheet? This simple tool will help you evaluate the 7 important characteristics (in addition to accreditation) to consider when evaluating potential PA schools. Be sure you are looking at the big picture. Go beyond just one or two search parameters to find the PA programs that are right for you.
The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. http://www.arc-pa.org/
PAEA Program Directory. http://directory.paeaonline.org/
PANCE Eligibility Requirements, NCCPA. http://www.nccpa.net/pance-eligibility