Much variety and variability can be found among the 218 accredited PA programs, but there are also trends and aspects of PA programs that can be revealed when looking at them as a whole. The Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) surveys all PA programs annually, allowing educators, PAs, students, and future PA students access to results that can show trends in PA education as well as average stats of these many programs.
This report, By the Numbers, was updated last month to include student to faculty ratios for the 2014-2015 cohorts and included all 194 programs accredited at the time of the survey. The 2014-2015 program report is the most up-to-date available, and includes information on programs as well as on all student cohorts (including matriculating, didactic phase, and clinical phase students). Here are a few of the highlights.
PA Program Factors
One of the most significant changes measured by the survey was the increase in the number of programs awarding a master's degree, reaching 95.4% in the most recent survey, compared to 26% in the 1996-1997 survey.
The cumulative total number of PA programs has steadily increased since 1965, with growth bursts in programs enrolling their first year classes between 1970-1973 and 1995-2000, and again since 2009. ARC-PA projects that 77 new PA programs to receive provisional accreditation by 2020.
The most common program length (for about 33% of programs) was 27 months and second most common (26%) was 24 months, with an overall average program length of 26.3 months. The most common start and end month for programs was August.
The average student to faculty ratio was 15.29. This ratio increased from provisional-accreditation programs (11.43) to continuing-accreditation programs (16.33), as well as with class size.
Sixty-three programs (33%) reported paying for clinical sites and/or clinical preceptors. While clinical rotation availability may be impacted by a number of factors such as class size, competing MD or PA programs, or geographic area, details on what factors lead to payment of certain clinical sites or preceptors was not explored in the survey. The average out-of-pocket expense of students paying for housing at remote clinical training sites was $2,267 (ranging up to $16,800).
PA programs vary widely in tuition costs, with resident/in-state tuition being, on average, the least expensive at $40,918 (full program tuition cost). This was increased compared to an average of $38,794 on the prior year’s survey. However, this change was less than the average increase seen in both public non-resident tuition (increased from $68,311 to $74,607) and in private program tuition ($74,475 to $81,555). Only three private PA programs (out of 111 responding) reported separate resident and nonresident tuition rates. At the time of the survey, more PA programs were hosted by private (111) institutions than public ones (83). Average total student fees (charges for lab fees, parking, student health services) and incidental costs (fees for textbooks, diagnostic equipment, software) were comparable between public ($4,839; $4,399) and private ($3,717; $4,202) programs.
PA Student Factors
The vast majority of programs (84%) filled their incoming first-year class to capacity. Of the 26 programs that did not fill to capacity, students withdrawing voluntarily was the most common reason. The average first-year capacity of PA programs was 47 students.
The average first-year class enrollment had grown from 24.1 students per class in 1984-1985 to 45.8 in the 2014-2015 survey. This growth was modest compared to the increase in total first-year class enrollment of all PA programs - 1,036 students in 1984-1985 increased to 8,603 students in 2014-2015, reflecting the significant increase in the number PA programs during that time period.
The average age of first-year PA students was 25.7, while the average age for the oldest first-year PA student per program was 41.8.
The average overall undergraduate GPA of students was 3.5 (median=3.6) and science GPA was also 3.5 (median=3.5). The GRE was a required prerequisite exam in 67.7% of programs.
The average amount of health care experience of matriculating students significantly increased compared to the prior year’s survey. The average community service hours increased more than two-fold from 424.8 hours (median=269.9, SD=480) to 869 hours (median=322, SD=2,245) while the average HCE hours increased for than three-fold to 3,272 hours (median=2,297, SD=2,157) from 1,013.6 hours (median=713, SD=943) the prior year. (To see details on the matriculating student-reported experience, check out this prior post on the student survey.)
Of the 2015 cohort, 90.8% graduated (compared to 94.1% the prior year), with 2.6% decelerated to a delayed graduation or to the following class, 4.5% withdrew, and 2.1% were dismissed. The most common reasons for withdrawal and dismal included academic dismissal (32.9%) and personal reasons (19.5%). Remember what I said about student loans? Not everyone taking out massive debt becomes a PA with a good salary to pay them off. Here is proof.
The information contained in this lastest PAEA program report shows trends in PA education while revealing factors that may help you in your PA school choice. Pre-PA students are often evaluating schools by the minimally required prerequisites, but what about total cost, graduation rates, and program length? What is important to you in choosing a program?
Rather than picking schools by default using the minimum requirements, aim to make better choices in programs by determining which what factors are important to you. Intentionally target programs that are a good fit for you based on the characteristics, rather than just the requirements, of the program. If you don’t yet have yours, be sure to grab your free PA Program Planner to help you evaluate program characteristics that are important to you.
Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Notes to Programs, Spring 2015.
Physician Assistant Education Association, By the Numbers: Program Report 31, Washington, DC: PAEA, 2016. doi: 10.17538/PS31.2016 (All tables and charts contained in this post adapted from report or data contained therein.)