How to Choose Your Top Physician Assistant Programs

February 20, 2023
With 300 accredited physician assistant programs (estimated to increase to 326 by 2024) to consider, finding your perfect PA program can be a challenge. While every program has promise and pitfalls, selecting the right fit for you is important to set yourself up for success in your educational journey and ultimately your career. 
Graduate education is not only costly and time-consuming, but it can also come with an immense mental strain, making it even more important to pick a program that meets your greatest needs. To help you focus your search, we’ve compiled important factors to consider while selecting your top physician assistant programs.

Criteria #1: Nationally High-Ranking PA Programs

According to the U.S. News, Duke and the University of Iowa rank number one of the top physician assistant programs in the U.S. based on rankings from peer institutions. Baylor follows these programs at number three, the University of Utah is ranked fourth, and fifth place is a tie between Emory University and George Washington University. 

While national rankings may hold some significance to you and reassure you that your chosen program is a quality one, keep in mind that these rankings are subjective. It is difficult to objectively compare PA programs due to varying missions, focus, structure, student composition, and size, among other factors. 

An objective data point that may help in your decision is the five-year PANCE pass rate. The overall data for all exam takers is reported by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) yearly. These rates are often reported on the websites of PA programs or can be requested if not directly posted. 

Criteria #2: Long-Established PA Programs

If you want abundant evidence of success following your particular studies, a program with longevity may best suit you. These programs have been constantly modifying and perfecting their educational methods as well as establishing long-lasting, quality rotations for students. 

Picking an established program is ideal for many students to ensure their hard work and finances are well spent on a quality program. 

While some students may thrive in a newly established program, it can be risky to apply to and enroll in a program that is not yet accredited by the ARC-PA. You can find more information on the current status of programs as well as a full history of accreditation actions on the ARC-PA website

Criteria #3: Specialized Physician Assistant Programs

While all programs must comply with the ARC-PA requirements to produce a general practitioner, some programs focus on specialized skills. For example, the University of Alabama-Birmingham offers a surgical skill curriculum. 

Many programs allow customization of your clinical year schedule with elective rotations that can broaden your knowledge and personal experience with desired specialties. 

But don’t get too hung up on this aspect of the program if your heart is set on a certain specialty pathway. There are plenty of post-graduate fellowships to further your experience and hone your skills! Physician assistants tend to learn and perfect skills on the job. Moreover, forming a close relationship with fellow clinicians and your collaborating physician is instrumental in your professional development. 

So regardless of the program, there should be many opportunities to get extra support in your chosen specialty—or even be introduced to a new specialty and make the switch!

Criteria #4: Class Structure in PA Programs

Class structure can also be an important factor in your success. Most physician assistant programs utilize either traditional semester-style classes or block-style classes during didactic year.

Semester-style teaching focuses on learning the foundations for medicine (such as anatomy, physiology, and basic pharmacology) with further classes building on these basics to introduce pathology, diagnostic evaluation, and treatment of specific conditions. 

Alternatively, some students thrive with the block-style learning structure wherein teaching focuses on one body system at a time. For example, a block may focus on cardiology with all relevant anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and other necessities for diagnosing and treating cardiac disease incorporated during the class’s assigned period of time. 

Criteria #5: PA Program Size

Program size can vary between programs with the average class size being around 40 students per matriculating class. You may find a larger class to be helpful in resourcing aid from a variety of colleagues with varied backgrounds. On the contrary, some students prefer a small class size to have more personalized interactions with professors and establish close-knit relationships with fellow students. 

Another personal preference that may sway you: a program’s physical distance from your support system. Consider who you will rely upon when the stress of your studies starts to bear down (trust me– it happens to the best of us!). 

If you’re comfortable with utilizing facetime or phone calls for a sympathetic ear, a program far from home that checks all your other criteria could be a consideration. If you instead need a home-cooked meal or tight-locked hug to ease your worries, programs within easy travel distance of your support system should be at the top of your list.

Criteria #6: Costs and Financial Aid

A consideration of any educational decision must include the financial implications. With the average cost of PA school being $75,000 to $80,000 for in-state tuition and upwards of $95,000 for out-of-state tuition or private institutions, it’s crucial to invest wisely. 

Consider how you will be paying for school and managing your finances. Many students take out federal or private student loans to pay for their costs of attendance. These loans typically come with increased interest rates compared to undergraduate loans and may make a lengthy repayment plan more costly. Large debts can complicate life decisions such as buying a home or expanding your family. 

Decide what you are willing and capable of investing into your education and make a solid plan on how you will pay back what you borrow. Keep in mind the physician and PA job market may be different between matriculation and graduation–have a backup strategy in mind should things shift during your time in school. 

If being financially independent is a top priority for you, consider working in an adjacent field. This allows you to continue to garner useful healthcare experience hours and save for your studies is a practical way to avoid looming long-term debt. 

Finally, don’t forget about loan repayment programs such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program or the National Health Service Corps scholarship or repayment program! 

Criteria #7: Personal Considerations

Further considerations will come down to personal preferences between individual programs. In my own considerations for PA programs, an anatomy lab with the opportunity to dissect cadavers was important to me. Having specific criteria effectively ruled out programs that focused funding on or prioritized alternative programs such as medical doctorate degrees and those with virtual anatomy labs. 

The program I attended also had a collaborative healthcare philosophy and incorporated lessons from different disciplines such as physical therapy, nursing, and occupational therapy when relevant. This reinforced a collaborative approach to healthcare which has served to better my clinical practice. 

These personalized choices led me to select a program best suited for my ideal educational setting. After the primary considerations above, determine what makes each program unique and whether that fits with your personal values and beliefs.

Additional Resources

For a direct comparison of physician assistant programs (including requirements for pre-requisite classes, experience hours, and minimum GPA), the PA Education Association has composed this comprehensive directory.

Once you have narrowed down your potential list using our tips above, dive further into the specifics behind your desired programs to find the few that best suit you. And after applying, you can get a leg up on your PA journey with the Rosh Review pre-PA question bank.

More than 90% of PA programs in the U.S. use Rosh Review Qbanks to help their students prepare for their board review and beyond. Get a headstart as a pre-PA student with a free trial!

By Brandi Curioz, PA-C

Comments (0)