Inside Top Online Physician Assistant (PA) Programs

Review some of 2021’s best online PA programs, read through curriculum details, and learn why both school and program accreditation matters. Take your first steps toward a career as a physician assistant.

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Written By
Kenya McCullum

Expert Review

Elizabeth Provanzana

- Bio

Elizabeth Provanzana is a licensed physician assistant with a multi-specialty background. Having earned a Bachelor of Health Sciences and a Master of Physician Assistant Sciences from St. Francis University, she has 13 years of experience in clinical medicine in areas of general, vascular, thoracic, gynecology, obstetrics, neurosurgical, orthopedic, and urological surgery.

last updated

Last Updated: 09/22/2021
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2021’s Best Online Physician Assistant Programs

Physician assistants are an integral part of the medical community. They work alongside doctors and other health care professionals to provide quality hands-on services to patients. In order to help prospective physician assistants find the school that will meet their education and career needs, EduMed has created the Best in Class initiative, a list of the highest-quality degree programs around the country that we chose based on factors such as curriculum and affordability. Below are the standout schools for 2021.

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About the ranking

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Methodology for EduMed’s 2021 Best Online Programs

1. Create List of Eligible Schools and Programs

To be eligible for this ranking, schools were required to meet the following criteria based on government data provided by The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

  • Institutional accreditation from an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
  • At least one program in subject area offered partially or fully online.

2. Assign Weightings

After creating the list of eligible schools, EduMed data scientists assigned weights and ranked schools based on a mix of affordability, support services, and online program availability metrics. Online program availability and overall affordability metrics received the heaviest weightings.

Online Program Availability

  • Number of online programs in subject area reported by school to the U.S. Department of Education.

Affordability

  • Cost – Relative cost of attendance compared to peer schools on the list. Based on tuition and fees per academic year.
  • Students w/ Institutional Aid – Percentage of students who receive financial aid from the school itself.

Support Services

  • Academic Counseling – Existence of this service on campus or online.
  • Career Placement – Existence of this service on campus or online.

About Our Data

EduMed’s rankings use the latest official data available from The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Most recent data pull: July 2021

# School Name Type Cost Online Programs More Details School Information Online Students Academic Counseling Career Placement Students w/Institutional Aid Median Earnings 10yrs After Entry Accreditation
1 Miami Dade CollegeMiami, FL Public $ 1

Miami Dade College (MDC) is a public school established in 1959. The Florida institution boasts approximately 85,000 credit-seeking students and offers one of the top physician assistant programs online. Upon completion of this master's PA program, graduates may sit for the national certification exam offered by the NCCPA.

MDC PA students take one synchronous online class per term over the span of eight terms. PA classes are taken simultaneously with master's of health science classes, so learners still have a full-time schedule. This 27-month program features online, lecture, and lab training components, especially for first-year classes like pharmacology, physical diagnosis techniques, and pathophysiology.

Prospective PA students for MDC's program should possess a bachelor's degree with a 3.0 or higher GPA. MDC also expects applicants to pass the PA-CAT exam and possess at least 50 hours of shadowing experience in a clinical setting.

Program Highlights:

Master's of Health Science and PA Program

  • Credits: 37
  • Length: 27 months
  • Cost: $31,866 (resident); $77,347 (nonresident)
  • Mode: Fully Online or Partially Online
  • Accreditation: SACSCOC (school); ARC-PA (program)
Academic
Counseling
Yes
Career
Placement
Yes
Students w/
Institutional Aid
33%
AccreditationSouthern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges
2 The University of Texas Rio Grande ValleyEdinburg, TX Public $$ 1

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) is a public school in Brownsville. The school today serves approximately 30,000 students and offers a standout master's in physician assistant studies bridge program that is entirely remote.

Designed for learners with a bachelor's degree, UTRGV's master's program requires 16 credits consisting of three clinical classes and one research-focused course. Each asynchronous class is four weeks in duration.

Prospective students must have a bachelor's with a 3.0 or higher GPA in their last 60 credit hours. Applicants must show proof of a current license to practice as a physician assistant, along with NCCPA certification. UTRGV also requires all students to possess medical malpractice insurance.

Program Highlights:

Master of Physician Assistant Studies Bridge Program

  • Credits: 16
  • Length: Varies
  • Cost: $677/credit (resident); $948/credit (nonresident)
  • Mode: Fully Online
  • Accreditation: NWCCU (school); ARC-PA (program)
Academic
Counseling
Yes
Career
Placement
Yes
Students w/
Institutional Aid
45%
AccreditationSouthern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges
3 University of North DakotaGrand Forks, ND Public $$ 1

Founded in 1883, the University of North Dakota (UND) is a public research school and the state’s oldest university. The school serves about 13,600 students and offers one of the best physician assistant master's programs. The program features a hybrid learning format, with on-campus learning and in-person clinical experiences to supplement online learning. Most learners complete the PA master's in about two years.

The 90-credit degree features asynchronous and synchronous classes such as human physiology, pharmacology, and anatomy and radiology. Prospective master's PA students at UND need a bachelor's degree with a 3.0 or higher GPA and at least 1,000 hours of hands-on healthcare experience in the U.S.

Program Highlights:

Master of Physician Assistant Studies

  • Credits: 90
  • Length: 2 years
  • Cost: $24,426.36 (North Dakota and Minnesota residents); $35,460.96 (non-residents)
  • Mode: Fully Online or Partially Online
  • Accreditation: NWCCU (school); ARC-PA (program)
Academic
Counseling
Yes
Career
Placement
Yes
Students w/
Institutional Aid
59%
AccreditationHigher Learning Commission

Why Consider an Online PA Program?

Physician assistants are required to obtain a great deal of hands-on training in order to be effective in their careers. As a result, some people interested in pursuing this field may be reluctant to enroll in an online degree program because they fear they won’t be able to develop the vital skills they need. However, that is not the case: Online physician assistant programs are made up of didactic portions that can be conducted via the Internet, as well as intensive hands-on training that is delivered on campus and through local health care facilities. As a result, students are able to gain an understanding of the theoretical concepts of the field, and then put those theories into practice.

There are numerous benefits for students to enroll in online physician assistant programs, including the following:

More flexibility

Instead of being locked into a strict schedule, those who enroll in online programs get more freedom than their on-campus counterparts. When students enroll in asynchronous programs, they get the opportunity to work at their own pace and watch lectures at a time that’s right for them, rather than a scheduled class period. This flexibility makes it easier for students to juggle their education with other responsibilities.

Reduced cost

Depending on the program, online physician assistant students may be charged by the credit for their tuition and fees, which can help keep costs down. Also, schools may offer scholarships to help defray the cost of tuition.

A personal pace

Just as they may have more freedom with lectures, online students may also have greater flexibility with assignments and tests, depending on the program. As a result, students may not be required to complete work on a set schedule, which allows them to work through material at their own pace.

Online Degree Options for Physician Assistants

To work as a PA, you generally need to earn a master’s or doctoral degree, depending on your career goals. As with other disciplines, the higher the degree level, the more complicated the coursework becomes and the longer it takes for students to complete. The following is a look at what students can expect when they enroll in these degree programs.

Master’s degree

Physician assistant master’s degrees, which generally take about two-and-a-half years to complete, are designed to teach students how to perform specific medical duties, such as providing physical examinations, performing diagnostic tests, and creating a care plan. In order to get accepted into these degree programs, prospective students are expected to complete a number of prerequisites, such as coursework in biology, physiology, statistics, and psychology. In addition, depending on the program, students may be required to complete the GRE and have previous patient care experience, including work as a registered nurse, emergency room technician, or paramedic.

Once enrolled in these programs, students take coursework that builds on their previous education and work skills, such as classes in health care policy and ethics, epidemiology, and multicultural medicine. After taking these courses, which can be completed online, students are required to participate in a residency in order to gain the clinical skills they need to practice.

Doctoral degree

Practicing physician assistants who aspire to become decision makers, educators, and scholars in the field can enroll in doctoral degree programs to reach these goals. In some cases, these programs are designed to train students to deliver advanced care in a health care specialty like neurology, primary care medicine, and infectious disease. Other programs focus on leadership or education and may include classes about health care policy and law, human resource management, and organizational behavior. These programs, which are about three years long, may also require that students complete clinical work designed to sharpen their advanced skills or a capstone project where they demonstrate their understanding of the program’s curriculum.

To gain admission to a doctoral program, applicants should have a physician assistant master’s degree, a 3.0 minimum grade point average, and an active physician assistant license. In addition, prospective students may be required to have a certain amount of professional experience in order to enter the program and will generally have to participate in an admissions interview.

Learn how you can stand out during your PA school admissions interview.

What to Look for in an Online Physician Assistant Program

Every student has different educational needs and career goals, so it’s imperative that they find an online physician assistant program that is the right fit. No matter what students are looking for, the following are some of the most important considerations they should keep in mind when evaluating schools.

Accreditation: In order to ensure that students are getting the high-quality training they need to enter the field, they should choose a school that has been accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). During the accreditation process, the ARC-PA evaluates the curriculum of programs, as well as the faculty and staff, to ensure the school offers education that meets industry standards.

High PANCE pass rates: In order to become certified, physician assistant graduates are required to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). To ensure that programs are providing the training they need to get their certification, students should inquire about pass rates and only consider schools with high ones. Prospective students can generally find this information on a school’s website, and they can also discuss it if they have an interview.

Program flexibility: Depending on students’ other responsibilities, they may need to find a program that is flexible enough to fit well into their lifestyle. In order to be successful in their studies, students should enroll in a school that allows them to complete coursework around their job schedule.

Program length: Some programs take longer than others, so students who want to begin their careers quickly may look for a more intensive program that takes less time to complete. Generally, it takes two to three years to complete the didactic and clinical requirements.

Things to Keep an Eye On

  • Application fees
  • Application deadlines
  • GRE/MCAT requirements
  • Program start dates
  • GPA requirements
  • Prerequisite classes

Core Physician Assistant Knowledge & Skills

The specific skills and knowledge that students get from a physician assistant degree program depends on the degree level they choose. In some cases, students can get the skills they need while taking online courses, while other abilities can only be acquired during the program’s hands-on training. The following are examples of some of the skills that physician assistants can learn during the online component of their program.

Prescribing medications

Physician assistants are required to prescribe medications to patients, so they take coursework in pharmacology to learn about the different types of drugs available, when they are appropriate to use, and the positive and negative effects they have on patients. This course may focus on drugs that are used to treat psychiatric, oncologic, endocrinologic, and neurologic health issues.

Conducting research

Students who want to become researchers should know about the mechanics of conducting studies that will expand the knowledge base of the physician assisting field. Research methods courses cover how to construct and execute a study, interpret data, and report on findings.

Understanding diagnostic tests

Physician assistants administer, order, and interpret diagnostic tests in order to provide the correct treatments to patients. As a result, coursework in physician assistant programs may cover how to work with blood tests, X-rays, and electrocardiograms.

Once students have acquired skills during their online didactic coursework, they go on to clinical experiences where they reinforce those abilities and gain new ones. The following are examples of some of those skills.

Communicating with patients and families

Physician assistants need to know how to talk to patients about their health problems, as well as communicate with families. In order to hone this skill, students need to work in simulated settings, as well as with real patients in clinical settings.

Performing therapeutic procedures

Hands-on experience is needed in order to teach future physician assistants how to perform therapeutic procedures. This can include taking care of wounds, giving injections, and managing infections.

Examining patients

Professionals regularly examine patients to find out what their medical problems are and determine how they should be addressed. The clinical training in physician assistant programs allows students to apply the care principles they learned in their online courses to real patients.

Financing Your Online PA Program

One important consideration that students generally have is how they will pay for their education, and they may make their school choice based on the financial aid that’s available to them. The following are some of the options students have.

Scholarships

There are several sources of scholarships that students may be eligible to receive. For example, the Physician Assistant Foundation, which is part of the American Academy of Physician Assistants, offers several scholarships to those preparing to work in the field. Other professional organizations that offer scholarships include the Society of Army Physician Assistants, the Association of Physician Assistants in Oncology, and Physician Assistants in Orthopedic Surgery.

Find more scholarships for your PA education and tips for winning them by reading our guide to physician assistant scholarships.

Loans

Students who need additional funds for college after winning scholarships may take out loans to help pay for their tuition. Graduate students are eligible to receive federal loans, as well as loans that are offered through their school.

For more information on how to finance your physician assistant education, read through our comprehensive guide to financial aid.

Career Growth, Salary & Outlook for Physician Assistants

This is a good time for people to enter the physician assistant field because the job opportunities are expected to increase in the coming years thanks to the older generations’ increased need for health care services. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2016 and 2026, there will be 37 percent job growth in the industry, or 39,600 new positions. This job growth is similar to other health-related professions. For example:

How Much do Physician Assistants Make?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for physician assistants is $101,480 per year. In addition, those who are the top earners of the field make $142,210 annually and the lowest earners make $65,620.

What Are the Career Advancement Opportunities for Physician Assistants?

Physician assistants can work in a variety of settings, including doctor’s offices, surgical centers, government agencies, hospitals, and phone triage centers. No matter where they choose to work, professionals can advance in their careers by earning a Certificate of Added Qualifications (CAQ) credential through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. This designation allows professionals to leverage their specialized knowledge and skills in a specific area of the field to advance in their careers, open up more job opportunities, and command higher salaries.

Certified Additional Qualifications (CAQ) Specialities:

  • Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Hospital Medicine
  • Nephrology
  • Orthopedic Surgery
  • Pediatrics
  • Psychiatry