The physician assistant role affords its graduates career opportunities that are both well compensating and in high demand. Physician assistants (also called PAs or physician associates) work closely with physicians to diagnose and treat patients in doctors’ offices, hospitals and other clinical settings.
In many cases, physician assistants handle patient care from start to finish with little or no physician oversight. PAs use sophisticated medical equipment, navigate health insurance and serve their patients in the same way that physicians do. PAs’ level of practice independence varies from state to state, but many states are pushing for more autonomy to address provider shortages.
There are many reasons to become a PA, including the physician assistant job outlook. PAs are well-compensated, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts the field will grow faster than the average for all occupations over the next decade. But becoming a physician assistant isn’t just about financial security––PAs also do meaningful work that can make a profound difference in their patients’ lives.
The job has many benefits, but getting started as a physician assistant can be an involved process. Newly graduating PAs must have a master’s degree in their field from an institution accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). As far as how long it takes to become a physician assistant, PA degree programs typically take two to three years to complete. Like other rigorous master’s degree programs, the typical physician assistant education costs represent a significant investment.
For example, the two-year Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid program (PAS-Hybrid) at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences costs an estimated $114,116 for two academic years—a figure that includes tuition and other program fees. It’s a considerable sum, but one that stands up to intense scrutiny when viewed through the lens of return on investment (ROI). Students graduate from the program with the tools and knowledge to become licensed physician assistants—plus increased job prospects and earning potential.
Prospective physician assistants should carefully consider the ROI of a PA degree when considering whether this academic pathway and career is the right one for them. To calculate ROI, they need to know how much they’ll earn as a physician assistant, how much their education will cost and how that compares to the potential costs and earnings of alternative career paths.
Physician assistant salaries can vary by organization, region and specialization, but physician assistants nationally earn about $119,000 annually, according to the BLS.
Most PAs work in doctors’ offices, earning slightly less than the average for the field at about $117,000. One of the highest-paying health care settings for PAs is outpatient care, where they earn about $130,000. Physician assistants’ pay also varies across state lines. In California, the state with the most employed PAs, physician assistants earn about $137,000. New York is also home to a large percentage of the country’s physician assistants—New York PAs earn about $132,000.
Physician assistant jobs pay well compared to other jobs because of the advanced skills PAs develop through their education and vital role in the health care system. Physician assistants are in high demand, and the BLS predicts the market for PAs will grow by 31% between now and 2030.
The typical physician assistant education consists of several distinct steps—each with unique costs. First, an aspiring physician assistant must earn a bachelor’s degree. While some universities offer pre-physician assistant programs at the undergraduate level, most physician assistant students have degrees in the health sciences or STEM fields. Next, aspiring PA students must log at least 500 hours of direct, hands-on health care experience (HCE) and/or patient care experience (PCE). All accredited PA programs require that applicants work in a health profession before applying. Then, future physician assistants must complete a PA master’s program that includes several clinical rotations in different settings and specialties. Finally, PA graduates take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE), offered through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), and apply for state licensure.
Similar to other graduate students, physician assistant students are eligible for student loans. Students who use loans to pay for their education should factor loan interest into the total cost of this degree. The amount of interest varies with different loan repayment programs. Other forms of financial aid, such as scholarships and grants, can reduce the overall cost of tuition. All PA students should fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), whether they plan on taking out loans or not.
Another element of the ROI calculation is the net income of the road not taken, which includes the money you would have earned if you had pursued a different career. This figure, sometimes called counterfactual income, varies dramatically from person to person. The average wage for all occupations is $58,000, but that figure covers many fields that aren’t truly alternatives to the physician assistant pathway.
Another health care job is the more likely alternative. Some people become PAs after looking into medical school or nurse practitioner careers, but many PAs begin their careers in––and can continue working in––other medical professions. Physician assistants are often registered nurses, who earn about $69,000; paramedics, who earn about $51,000; and medical assistants, who earn about $36,000.
Opportunity cost cuts both ways. If someone becomes a paramedic instead of a physician assistant, they give up the income they would have earned across their entire PA career. That opportunity cost can be very high––one study found that lifetime earnings for PAs may be as high as $11,776,000.
Hybrid physician assistant studies programs include elements of both in-person and online programs. Students take didactic courses remotely but receive the same in-person clinical experiences they would in a traditional program.
Tuition rates are about the same between hybrid and traditional physician assistant education programs, but students can reduce the total cost of an MS in Physician Assistant Studies by choosing a hybrid program. Hybrid programs allow students to cut out additional costs, such as commuting and living expenses associated with moving closer to campus.
When comparing a hybrid to an on-campus program, it should be noted that each pathway delivers the same high-quality education and have identical learning outcomes. The Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) maintains a set of core competencies all PA programs must follow, whether hybrid or traditional, so hybrid students can be sure they are learning the same physician assistant skills they would learn in a traditional program.
Hybrid PA programs deliver the same rigorous education as traditional programs while helping students save money in some areas. The School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences’ award-winning faculty teaches the PAS-Hybrid program at Pitt. Lecturers are experienced clinical innovators committed to moving health care forward through excellence in patient care.
There are also opportunity costs associated with pursuing a PA degree. This is the income that a student misses out on by enrolling in physician assistant school. So, for example, a paramedic in PA school who was making $51,000 in their job should factor that lost income into their ROI calculation as an opportunity cost.
What Is the ROI of an MS in Physician Assistant Studies from Pitt? The typical physician assistant education costs more than many other master’s degree pathways, but a PA program such as Pitt’s PAS-Hybrid will more than pay for itself over time.
Imagine a hypothetical student who works as a paramedic until they are about 30, then earns an MS in Physician Assistant Studies from Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and becomes a physician assistant. In an alternative scenario where they continue working as a paramedic, they earn about $1,800,000 over their career. If they become a PA, they earn about $4,200,000. Factor in the cost of an MS in Physician Assistant Studies from Pitt at $114,000 and the opportunity cost of not working as a paramedic for two years, and they can realize an ROI of more than $2,000,000. ROI varies from student to student, but virtually every student interested in pursuing a patient care career will benefit tremendously from earning a PA degree.
Another comparative example would be to the student pursuing medical school, who will incur greater cost in both time of training and financial burdens. While the PA student will forfeit some level of autonomy, they will graduate with less debt in less time, and still attain a highly satisfying career in medicine.
The MS in Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program at the University of Pittsburgh offers a comprehensive education. The first-year PAS-Hybrid curriculum provides a full knowledge base that PAs need to succeed. In the second year, students complete clinical rotations at exceptional health care settings local to them. They don’t need to move to Pittsburgh to enroll in the program. Pitt offers aspiring PAs in other locations the opportunity to earn a degree from a prestigious university and an internationally-recognized school of health and rehabilitation sciences, setting them up for successful PA careers with higher ROI.
The University of Pittsburgh PA Studies Hybrid Program has applied for Accreditation – Provisional from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). The University of Pittsburgh PA Studies Hybrid Program anticipates matriculating its first class in January 2023, pending achieving Accreditation – Provisional status at the September 2022 ARC-PA meeting. Accreditation – Provisional is an accreditation status granted when the plans and resource allocation, if fully implemented as planned, of a proposed program that has not yet enrolled students appear to demonstrate the program’s ability to meet the ARC-PA Standards or when a program holding accreditation-provisional status appears to demonstrate continued progress in complying with the Standards as it prepares for the graduation of the first class (cohort) of students.