As the United States population increases and ages, the need for versatile health care providers continues to grow. Physician assistants and physician associates (PAs) are helping to meet that need. They are trained to holistically serve patients in all clinical settings. They’re also ready to practice more quickly than other providers. Earning an MD or DO takes at least a decade, while PA students can get their master’s degree in two to three years.
An estimated 12,700 PA jobs will open annually through 2031, making the field one of the fastest-growing health professions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). To be qualified for these positions, individuals need to graduate from an accredited PA studies program, such as the University of Pittsburgh’s Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program (PAS-Hybrid).
How much a student’s physician associate or physician assistant education costs will vary based on a number of factors. As an example, Pitt PA students can estimate to pay about $114,000 over the course of their program (based on estimations for the 2023-24 academic year). While the financial investment is significant, it remains a more cost-effective option compared to other paths such as medical school, which can cost a total average of more than $230,000, according to the Education Data Initiative.
While aspiring PAs should look closely at tuition and fees when researching physician assistant studies or physician associate master’s programs, cost should not be the only factor when selecting such a program. Prospective students should evaluate the factors that influence total cost, understand their funding options, and assess the program’s overall quality.
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What Factors Determine Physician Assistant Education Costs?
Several factors determine physician assistant/associate education costs including tuition rates, program fees and opportunity cost. While reviewing different programs’ expenses is an important step in researching PA schools, students also benefit from learning the reason and meaning behind those costs.
Program tuition helps pay for the instructional services a student receives, such as faculty and student support services. For PA students, it is generally the largest singular expense they pay. This proves true for Pitt’s PAS-Hybrid students who spend $49,999 for their annual tuition, based on the estimated costs for the 2023-24 academic year.
Physician assistant/associate programs apply part of their tuition funds toward locating and securing clinical placements for their students. Pitt’s PAS-Hybrid degree program has arrangements with more than 1,150 placement slots throughout the country to accommodate its national student population.
Through their fees, PA students pay for materials and resources that help them succeed in the program and beyond.
Certain fees are fixed. These can include mandatory university fees, lab fees and membership fees to organizations such as the American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA), which is the national professional society for all PAs.
Students benefit from joining professional organizations while earning their degrees. AAPA’s student members, for example, can network with practicing PAs, which can lead to mentorships or future job opportunities. AAPA also supports students by providing resources, tools and advice to navigate PA school from day one to beyond graduation.
How much and how often graduate students pay certain fees differs per year. As of the 2023-24 academic year, Pitt’s PAS-Hybrid students annually spend $1,425 in mandatory university fees. In additional costs, students can expect to pay an estimated $475 before the program starts, $6,500 in their first year, and $4,500 in their second year. These additional costs are all estimated amounts and include anticipated expenses for additional program requirements, such as laptops and parking.
Perhaps the most significant cost is also the one that’s the most difficult to calculate—opportunity cost. Physician assistant degree candidates must be ready to fully commit to their program which is why universities often dissuade, or even prohibit, PA students from working while in school. While students may lose income in the short term, their long-term return on investment can compensate for the sacrifice.
The average annual salary for PAs in the U.S. is $121,530, according to the BLS. Location, experience and industry can affect an individual’s wages, and physician associate students acquire skills that allow them to move among different specialties and settings. Having this flexibility gives students more control over which industry they want to pursue, which impacts the salary they can earn. It also contributes to a high level of career satisfaction.
Physician assistant students can commence their career planning while they are still in school. For example, Pitt’s PAS-Hybrid students perform their clinical rotations in eight different disciplines during their second year. This exposure can help students decide which setting and specialty they want to work in, increasing their chances of selecting a fulfilling starting position.
How Can Students Manage the Cost of a Physician Assistant Education?
Once students understand how much their physician assistant education costs, they can better research their financing options. Several programs exist to help PA students offset their educational expenses.
Students have to evaluate several points when researching student loans such as what type of loan they can get, how much they should borrow, what their interest rates are, and how they can repay the balance.
There are two main categories from which to choose: federal and private.
Professional and graduate students can apply for Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Direct PLUS Loans, which are considered supplementary funds. When it comes to unsubsidized loans, graduate students have an annual borrowing limit of $20,500. However, health professions students may qualify for additional funds and should ask their university’s financial aid office for more information. To start the federal loan application process, students must fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
Physician assistants/associates who take out federal loans may qualify to have their loans forgiven. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) is for full-time, mid-career professionals who work for an eligible employer, such as the government or a not-for-profit. PAs accepted into select Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) fellowships may qualify for its Educational Loan Repayment Program for Health Professionals. Those wanting to work with underserved populations or communities in need can seek employment with the National Health Service Corps, AmeriCorps or the Indian Health Service, all of which offer loan repayment assistance.
Students who want to borrow private student loans should be aware of stipulations, including having a good credit history or a co-signer who does. These loans also are generally excluded from forgiveness programs.
How quickly PA students pay off their loans depends on the individual and their preferred repayment plan. For example, students with federal student aid who choose the standard repayment plan or the PSLF program can be free of their student debt in approximately 10 years.
While accumulating student debt can feel daunting, PA students should view their degree costs as an investment into a career with substantial earning potential and a positive job outlook.
PA degree candidates can tap into several scholarship opportunities to cover some of their educational costs. Some options require membership in professional organizations, while others are for applicants who want to serve particular patient populations.
AAPA student members can access several scholarships through the organization’s Physician Associate Foundation as well as entities such as the Association of Physician Assistants in Oncology. Student members of the Physician Assistants in Orthopaedic Surgery and the Society of Emergency Medicine Physician Assistants can apply for specialized scholarships as well.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and National Health Service Corps offer scholarships to PA students who commit at least two years of service to their respective organizations. Both organizations cover participants’ tuition and select fees and provide them with monthly stipends.
Physician assistant students can also consider state scholarships. For example, Pitt’s PAS-Hybrid students can qualify for the Pennsylvania Society of Physician Assistants scholarship by joining the organization.
Out of Pocket
Paying upfront for any educational and living expense—no matter the amount—effectively lowers the total cost of the degree by reducing student loan interest.
Students can’t work during PA school but can save money ahead of time. Since PA students are required to have prior clinical experience, they can fulfill this prerequisite by working as a paramedic, nurse’s aide or physical therapist. These roles allow aspiring PAs to hone patient care skills while earning money to save for graduate school.
Why Students Should Look Beyond Cost When Choosing a PA Program
To fully determine its value, PA students need to evaluate programs beyond their total costs.
Due to their flexible, patient-centered, team-based skills, physician assistants are seen as vital to transforming health care. To optimize their impact as PAs, students need to understand more about how the system operates and how it’s changing. That’s why programs such as Pitt’s PAS-Hybrid include course material on topics such as how population-level determinants and financial implications of health care affect patients.
Students should look to see what experience faculty brings to their instruction. Pitt’s PAS-Hybrid faculty have spent decades as certified physician associates, specializing in fields including internal medicine, emergency medicine and physical therapy. Outside the classroom, they continue to advance health care by conducting research, providing excellent patient care, and working to implement systemic changes.
Ultimately, a program should prepare students to pass the Physician Assistant National Certification Exam (PANCE). Aspiring PAs must take the exam to earn a Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) credential from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), which allows them to seek state licensure without additional training. In 2021, 95% of Pitt’s on-campus PA graduates passed the PANCE on their first try. Faculty devote the same level of commitment they take with their on-campus students toward helping their PAS-Hybrid students excel in their exams.
Finding the right physician assistant/associate master’s degree program takes time and research. But, once a student finds it, they are that much closer to entering a fast-growing field that’s flexible, challenging and, above all, fulfilling.
The ARC-PA has granted Accreditation-Provisional status to the University of Pittsburgh Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program sponsored by University of Pittsburgh. 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.
Accreditation-Provisional does not ensure any subsequent accreditation status. It is limited to no more than five years from matriculation of the first class.
The program’s accreditation history can be viewed on the ARC-PA website at http://www.arc-pa.org/accreditation-history-university-of-pittsburgh-hybrid/.