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Is Physician's Assistant School Worth the Cost?

Is Physician's Assistant School Worth the Cost?
Rebecca Safier
Rebecca SafierUpdated August 15, 2023
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Studying to become a physician’s assistant (PA) involves a significant investment of time, energy, and money. Before you enroll in PA school, it’s important to make sure your investment will be worth the cost. Working as a PA can lead to a high, six-figure salary and the opportunity to work as a team with other medical professionals while helping people in your community. At the same time, you’ll need to commit to several years of schooling, clinical rotations, and exams. Plus, you might leave school owing over $100,000 in student loans. If you’re wondering if PA school is worth it in terms of the cost and time, read on for a closer look at:
  • What is a PA?
  • How much school do you need to be a PA?
  • How much does PA school cost?
  • What are the pros and cons of PA school?
  • How does PA school compare to medical school?
  • How can you pay back student loans for PA school?

What Is a Physician's Assistant?

Physician assistants (PAs) are licensed clinicians who practice medicine in hospitals, medical offices, community health centers, nursing homes, and other settings. They have a variety of responsibilities, including, 
  • Taking medical histories
  • Conducting physical exams
  • Diagnosing and treating illness
  • Ordering and interpreting tests
  • Developing treatment plans
  • Prescribing medication
  • Counseling on preventive care
  • Performing procedures
  • Assisting in surgeries
  • Doing clinical research.
Physician assistants are committed to team practice with other healthcare professionals. To practice, some PAs are required by state law to have an agreement with a specific physician.

How Much School Do You Need to Become a PA?

To become a PA, you’ll need to complete a Master’s degree program that typically spans three academic years. To gain admission, you’ll need to graduate from an accredited PA program and meet prerequisites for coursework and hands-on patient care. During your PA program, you’ll take courses on anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, medical ethics, and other subjects. You’ll also be required to complete more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations.After graduating with your degree, you’ll have to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), as well as gain state licensure. To maintain your license, you’ll need to complete 100 hours of continuing medical education (CME) credits every two years. Plus, you’re required to take the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam, or PANRE (a recertification exam) every 10 years.

PA School Cost

PA school is a significant investment. The average cost of nonresident tuition has risen 3.5% over the last five years, while the average cost of resident tuition rose by 5.33%.Tuition costs are typically highest at private institutions and more affordable for state residents who attend public universities. Here are the average cost of PA school to expect:  
Average PA School Tuition Costs for 27-month program 
In-state public school$50,289
Out-of-state public school$88,677
Private school $91,639
Recommended: How Does Student Loan Refinancing Work?

Pros and Cons of PA School

Attending PA school has its pluses and minuses, like most things in life. Depending on your goals and needs, it may be the right next step. For others, it may not be a good fit. Consider these benefits and drawbacks as you make your decision.


Some of the upsides include:
  • PA school requires less of a time commitment than medical school. While medical school typically spans four years and requires another three to seven years in residency, PA school is usually a three-year program. 
  • PA employment is expected to grow in the next few years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a fast growth rate of 28% over the next decade, suggesting that you’ll find plenty of job opportunities. 
  • You’ll participate in team-based care. PAs often work closely with primary care physicians, nurse practitioners, and other healthcare professionals to provide the best care for patients. 


Some of the downsides include:
  • PA school is expensive. PA school tuition costs between $50,000 and $92,00 on average, but it can go higher still.
  • The average student debt for PAs is $112,500. The average student who borrows to pay for PA school graduates with six figures of debt. 
  • You’ll have to take a number of exams. You’ll have to take the PANCE exam, gain state licensure, and take a recertification exam every 10 years, as well as complete continuing medical education. 

PA School vs Medical School

While PA school can come with an expensive price tag, medical school can cost even more. The average cost of medical school tuition is between $18,000 and $74,000 per year, with some private colleges charging as much as $330,180 over four years. The median debt among medical school students who borrow loans is $200,000. Medical school also requires a longer time commitment than PA school — four years of schooling and three to seven years in residency. It can lead to a doctor of medicine (MD) degree or doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) degree.  

Expected Earnings of Physician's Assistants

The median annual salary for physician assistants is $121,530, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). BLS also predicts that the employment of PAs will grow 28% over the next 10 years, a rate much faster than the average for all occupations. In total, expect about 12,700 openings for physician assistants each year.Recommended:  The 10 Best Cities for College Grads to Live 

Paying Back Student Loans

The average student debt load from PA school is more than six figures at $112,500. If you borrow student loans to pay for PA school, you have a number of options for paying them back. 

Student Loan Refinancing

Refinancing your student loans for better rates is one option worth exploring, especially if you have a steady income and strong credit. You might qualify for better interest rates than you have now, which could reduce your costs of borrowing. And if you owe multiple loans, refinancing lets you combine them into one, thereby simplifying repayment. At the same time, there are cons and pros of student loan refinancingRefinancing federal loans with a private lender means forfeiting access to federal benefits. Private loans are not eligible for income-driven repayment, Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), or other federal protections. If you need any of these programs now or in the future, refinancing your federal student loans may not be a wise move.

Income-Based Repayment Plans

Income-driven repayment plans are also a useful option if your student loan bills are breaking the bank. Income-driven plans adjust your monthly payment to a percentage of your discretionary income. President Joe Biden has announced the creation of the Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) Plan, which replaces the existing Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) Plan. Borrowers on the REPAYE Plan will automatically get the benefits of the new SAVE Plan.The SAVE Plan, like other income-driven repayment (IDR) plans, calculates your monthly payment amount based on your income and family size. The SAVE Plan provides the lowest monthly payments of any IDR plan available to nearly all student borrowers.Starting next summer, borrowers on the SAVE Plan will have their payments on federal undergraduate loans cut in half (reduced from 10% to 5% of income above 225% of the poverty line). 

Student Loan Forgiveness Programs

Depending on where you work, you could qualify for medical school loan forgiveness. PSLF offers forgiveness of your federal loan balance after 10 years in a nonprofit or government organization and 120 qualifying payments. The National Health Service Corps also offers loan repayment assistance for qualifying physician assistants who work at approved sites. Explore your options to see if you could qualify for assistance paying off your student loans. Recommended: A Guide to Student Loan Forgiveness

The Takeaway

PA school is a significant investment of your time, money, and energy. Students who borrow loans graduate more than $100,000 in debt, a significant sum that can take a long time to pay back. At the same time, going to PA school may be well worth the investment, as it can lead to a fulfilling career as a licensed clinician. Plus, you have options for paying back your loans, including qualifying for loan forgiveness and refinancing for better rates. If you’d like to explore the latter option, find out more about student loan refinancing with Lantern. You can quickly and easily see various offers and see if refinancing might be the best move for you and your financial future.Let Lantern show you how simple it can be to see your student loan refinancing options!

Frequently Asked Questions

Is becoming a PA a good idea?
Is PA school harder to get into than med school?
Is PA school as hard as they say it is?
Photo credit: iStock/Marco VDM

About the Author

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier has nearly a decade of experience writing about personal finance. Formerly a senior writer with LendingTree and Student Loan Hero, she specializes in student loans, financial aid, and personal loans. She is certified as a student loan counselor with the National Association of Certified Credit Counselors (NACCC).
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