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PA Program Rankings

Winter weather fading away means less acute visits for RSV and croup for clinicians, but for our students who are beginning their application cycle, this means April 25 and CASPA’s opening is almost here!

With that theme in mind, today we will focus on one particular piece of the puzzle, taking a look at what PA school might be right for you.

Questions we get from students include:

  1. does it matter which PA program you attend?
  2. What about PA program rankings, should we pay attention to these?
  3. How about new PA programs 2019?
  4. Should we consider physician assistant programs online?

There are numerous questions that abound, but today we will take a look at some of the more important factors.



It’s important to note that we could easily write an entire book on the application process and the many different factors that go into an individual student making a decision as to what physician assistant program is right for them. Today, my plan is to cover some of the more important factors, giving my own personal experience and insight, discuss new PA programs, and then discuss an emerging trend in education, online PA programs.


Important Factors To Consider

The process for even choosing to apply to a PA school can be daunting. So how do we establish what PA program we might realistically attend? Each piece of the puzzle is broad and corresponds differently for each student, so take this in your own context. Some of the more important factors, in my opinion, include the following:

  • PANCE Pass Rates/Student readiness for boards.
  • Job placement rate
  • Student Morale
  • Clinical Rotation set up
  • New vs. Established Program
  • Cost of program
  • Location of program


PANCE Pass Rates

It would definitely not make much sense if the first thing that I mentioned was not in regard to the PANCE. After all, how emotionally devastating would it be if you made it through a PA program but could not pass the PANCE that allowed you to see patients? In my opinion, the single most important thing to look at when choosing a program; is their track record of helping students become board certified. Would you want to attend a PA program with an 80% pass rate? How would it feel for two years, knowing that statistically, someone in your five-person study group was unlikely to pass the boards?


What PANCE Pass Rate is good?

From a personal level, I would probably not be comfortable with a PA program that did not have a pass rate greater than 90%. At the end of the day, life, finances, and overall longevity in a career are at stake, so I would rank having a high pass rate on the PANCE as monumentally important when considering both PA Program Rankings as well as eventual matriculation.


Employment Rates

Although passing the board is very important, it is also extremely important that students are able to obtain employment after graduation. In some cities, this can be more challenging with numerous PA schools saturating the market and many applicants applying for one particular job. It is not only the responsibility of the program to assure clinicians are knowledgeable from a clinical standpoint, but also employable.

A PA program with a good track record of having their students hired immediately after graduation, or in some cases even before graduating is ideal, as it can take off some of the stress around graduation. PA programs should have dedicated courses to the interview process, salary negotiation and contract negotiating to help set their students up for financial independence.


Student Morale

An additional factor that students may not think of is overall student morale. I find this one to be particularly important because PA school is incredibly difficult, there’s no getting around it. I bring this up for two reasons. When interviewing, I tell my students who I advise through Medgeeks to sit down and talk with current students. Do they seem stressed? Do they seem miserable? Do they feel well prepared to enter the work force? Do they foresee any trouble passing their boards?


Importance of Student Morale

Student morale is important for a few different reasons. For one, the average PA student should be stressed, but able to deal with it. PA students should not be miserable and if attending an interview at a school and students seem miserable, this is a red flag.


Mental Health and Burnout

Programs who do not address the mental health and burnout of their students early are setting their future clinicians up for failure. The general consensus should be that yes, PA school is extraordinarily difficult but manageable, but if misery is present, run far and run fast.


Are Current Students TOO Relaxed?

At the same time, I would also be very weary of a student body who is overly relaxed, this could be a harbinger of a program being too easy on students, setting them up for challenges with the PANCE or as a practicing clinician.


How Are Clinical Rotations Setup?

Also, in relation to student morale is whether the PA program sets up rotations for students or whether students are expected to set up their own rotations. At my program, all of our rotations were set up for us, although we did have a say as to what elective rotations we wanted and where we wanted to do particular rotations.

At some programs, students are entirely on their own when it comes to setting up rotations. For me, this would be a deal breaker. During didactic year, my focus was on learning medicine, not cold calling hospitals to try to get an internal medicine rotation.


The Programs Track Record

When you ask, does it matter which PA program you attend? Another major consideration is the program’s track record. Is it a brand-new program or a decades old program? For some, this matters a lot more than others.


Brand-New Programs

For me, I went to a brand-new PA program and was part of the inaugural class. It was a chance to write history and be part of the story. I was also far less worried because the staff all had significant experience in PA education, with the program director teaching at another program for decades, with a near perfect PANCE pass rate. This was far more than enough to soothe any worries I had, but I could definitely understand why a lot of students would stay away from a new program.

If at the interview it seems like there is not a lot of educational experience with the professors, it might be time to walk away. The student should also make sure that the school does have provisional accreditation so that the student is able to take boards in the future.


Finances & Cost

In addition, finances are also very important. I’ve written articles previously about the cost of PA school and how expensive it can be to move from one side of the country to another, so the cost of the PA program is definitely an important factor as well, but that also depends on the individual.

Many students will already have significant debt from undergraduate education or a prior master’s degree, so a cheaper PA program can definitely be appealing. Shopping around for cost savings can be important as well, but personally, I do not think cost should be the deciding factor. For me, I took out a great deal of loans, but the program was the right fit and at the end of the day, I was prepared to pay them back. Unfortunately, this is the current state of affairs with graduate education.


Location! Location! Location!

At the same time, extrapolation of costs can be quite important as well and also location of the program. Back during my application process, I was torn between two schools, one of which was on the east coast in a major city, offering me a dual master’s degree. The other was still in the East, but much more rural. Program 1’s length was 3 years and the cost of living in the area was staggering. Program 2’s length was 2 years and the area’s cost of living was approximately a third of program 1. After crunching the numbers, in the long run, program 2 would cost me almost $250,000 less than program 1. Unbelievable, right? Hard to argue for Program 1 at that point, so I bet you can guess where I went.


PA Program Rankings

As discussed above in this article, PA Program Rankings are also something else that is available for consideration. The US News and World Report unveils a list of “rankings” of PA programs each year. By my own admission, I have never really looked at this. I’m not particularly partial to rankings, because I do not think they tell us much. How do you differentiate between the #32 school and the #17 school? Is there really that much of a difference. I personally do not advise students to take much stock in this and overall try to look at the general big picture of the school and the gestalt feeling that they had when walking the halls, speaking with professors, and interacting with students. The intangible is much more important than a label or a number.


Other Factors to Consider

In addition to the numerous factors above, there are many more topics of thought for students, including proximity to family, future job prospects, whether a spouse will move with you, affiliation with research, whether the program is at a teaching hospital, and so much more. I hope that we’ve been able to cover some of the major ones today, but it is very important for students to realize just how much goes into the decision.

ARC-PA – Current Accreditation Status

As we discussed above, we should also spend some time talking about the new programs that are out there, as this might be an appealing area for the right type of student. Some students say that they do not want to be “guinea pigs”, but other students might jump at the chance of being in an inaugural class. There are certainly risks with programs that have provisional status and this can be a judgement call on the part of the applicant. The PAEA lists a total of 284 programs on their website, with “continuing, provisional, probationary, and applying for accreditation” as school statuses. The ARC-PA lists a total of 250 accredited programs, indicating that another 34 or so are applying for accreditation as new programs. Given that the application cycle is set to begin coming up in the next 6 weeks or so, these numbers may certainly change, so stay tuned!

Online PA Schools

With the rise of new programs, we have also seen an entirely different type of education as well, in the form of online programs. Yale made history in the last few years when they launched their first class of online students. This is another question that we get routinely at Medgeeks when we advise students, “should I consider an online program”. I think that this is definitely a unique question to consider and it really does depend quite a bit on personality as well. For me, I knew that going into PA school, I needed the structure of an 8 am to 5 pm grind to keep me focused on the task at hand. I’m not sure how an online program would have gone for me, to be completely honest. As more programs consider the possibility of online remote education, the layers and thoughts behind this example will only continue to grow.

I hope that today’s review has been helpful for our students out there. Whether you are between two acceptances and trying to figure out what is right for you or whether you are just planning on starting your application, there are many things to consider and the more you are prepared, the easier the process will be!