How to Go to PA School Without Debt


The cost of PA school, like the cost of all higher education, has risen substantially over the past few decades. On average, students enter PA school with $37,446 in outstanding educational loans, and $12,051 in non-educational consumer debt before accumulating additional debt related to their PA education. Things get worse from there.


New PA students plan to finance an average of 84% of their PA education. Over three-quarters (76.4%) of PA students anticipate accumulating at least $50,000 of additional debt for their PA school education, with nearly 39% expecting to borrow more than $100,000.


It has become expected that debt is just part of the process, but it does not have to be. Most people who end up buried in debt do so simply because they assume that is the only way to accomplish their goal.


Free budgeting guide

I was in the first generation of my family to go to college, and I had no idea what I was doing when it came to paying for it and lacked any real guidance on my options. My family was told to fill out the FAFSA forms and apply for loans, so we did. When it came time for PA school, I again just did what the student aid office told me to do, more applications for more loans.


I assumed that once I graduated, I would have a good paying job and would be able to tackle the loans. What I did not consider was that not everyone who takes loans for PA school finishes.


I did not think about how after 6 years of college, I would not want to live like a college kid any more and would be more likely to spend my new found money. I saw how life changed for my classmates, who got married, had kids, and bought houses and cars. Suddenly, the money from their new well paying jobs could not be funneled into loan repayment.


Now on the other side of my massive loan payoff, I can see much more clearly what I could have done to avoid the debt. After many missteps, I have learned enough to provide the guidance that I so desperately needed when I was planning for PA school.




Spending as little as you can is not a budget. A budget is a monthly plan for spending before the month begins; it is that simple. I had no concept of what was or was not out of bounds before I started budgeting, even once I had a well-paying PA position.


Planning ahead removes the stress of expenses when they inevitably arise. You will need to eat, you will need to get yourself from one place to another, you will need a place to sleep. These are not surprises, and the expenses are predictable.


Start budgeting now, no matter where you are in your PA school prep. The practice will give you a sense of control over money and will make you better at planning in all areas of your life.



Despite what you may hear, there is plenty of scholarship money for PA school. The best scholarship program out there is through the National Health Service Corps, which was highlighted in a recent post.


The scholarships are very competitive, but the NHSC pays for all of your PA school expenses regardless of the cost of the PA school you attend, and provides a monthly living stipend. In exchange, you agree to work in an underserved area for at least 2 years after graduation.


Preference is given to students based on academic performance, a disadvantaged background, and the likelihood of continuing to work in an underserved area once their service is completed.


[UPDATE: The VA now also has a pretty great scholarship program that opened in February 2017.]


If you are an undergraduate student, you can start “stacking” scholarships, where you are awarded more money through scholarships than you need to cover the cost of school.


Colleges may have limits on scholarships that are provided through the school, but outside scholarships are generally unlimited. These may be smaller awards per scholarship, but they are usually easier to get because there are less applicants.


Scholly is a scholarship search service available on desktop or through a smart phone app. You input your information, and it immediately matches you with available scholarships based on your stats.


It will save you hours of hunting for obscure scholarships and is well worth the $2.99 cost. (I have a hard time bringing myself to pay for apps, but trust me, it is worth it). If you are closer to PA school, Scholly will also search for available graduate scholarships.


Another source of scholarship money is PA organizations. Many state PA organizations have $1000-2500 scholarships available. This is also true of specialty PA organizations - dermatology, oncology, surgery, and many more.


Check into your state’s PA organization as well as the specialty-specific organizations. The PA Foundation is the philanthropic arm of AAPA, and awards $1000-2500 scholarships (14 scholarships in the most recent round) to select applications who have done well academically in their first semester of PA school.


It can be hard to get motivated to do the work of applying and writing essays while completing all of your other PA school prep, especially while student loans are so easy to get, but consider that your saving your future self and future career from years of strain.


A few essays and some time to apply is well worth the potential reward. Start going after scholarships now! This is free money and worth your effort.



Work & save

This sounds a bit boring after all of the free money talk, but it is a real option. Most PA students have 1-2 years between undergrad and PA school. Many are working patient care jobs that allow for overtime hours, which accomplishes two goals at once - increasing contact hours and growing your income.


You could consider more time between undergrad and PA school to save up and pay your way through. Maybe you find a better paying job to save for school faster, while working your patient contact job on the side.


This might sound grueling, but in retrospect, I wish I had considered this as an option. Incorporating budgeting is a must as part of this plan or you will struggle to meet your goal.



School choice

By the time the CASPA applications are in, most people feel willing to pay any price if they are accepted. It is hard to control this impulse, which is why you should plan for PA school finances before applying.


How to go to PA school without debtlBe a Physician Assistant

Choose schools based not on only location or program quality, but by cost. Barring any dramatic twists, you will graduate as a PA regardless of program. The vast majority of employers do not care where you went to school. I work at one of the top cancer hospitals in the country and we do not eliminate or choose candidates based on the PA program they attended.


Your program will matter even less once you have experience. Check out the PAEA directory for a full listing of national PA programs with detailed information (including tuition) for each program.


Most programs have a seat deposit required if they offer you a spot, typically $500-1000, and interviewing at multiple programs can be costly. Do not let this make your decision for you.


I have known students who went to a program because they had already paid a seat deposit, while another program where they were later accepted had a tuition that was at least $10K less.


Take a moment and consider the big picture. Emotions run high during this time, but you did not get through undergrad without being at least decent at math, so consider your options objectively and make overall cost part of your decision making process.

When preparing for PA school, finances should be as much a part of your plan as patient contact, prerequisites, and GPA. If done poorly, it can negatively affect the next 20-30 years of your career.


Be intentional and take the time to make this part of your plan, it is that important. While signing up for student loans may come easy now, it is the most expensive way to go to to school and will require you to work longer and harder later.


Between budgeting, scholarships, working and choosing your PA program wisely, you can graduate with freedom and the opportunity to choose the path you want as a PA without the burden of debt.


Be sure to sign up to receive your free quick-start budgeting tools and get started on your plan today.


Next time, I will tell you how my lack of guidance and planning resulted in my crippling student loan debt, and how I managed to get out.