If you’ve visited our PA Programs by State directory, you may have noticed our focus on PA program accreditation.  What is accreditation?  How important is it?  If you want to become a physician assistant, this is important stuff.  So here goes…

What is PA School Accreditation?

The accreditation of a PA school is basically its stamp approval by ARC-PA, the Accreditation and Review Commission on Physician Assistant Education.  ARC-PA is an independent agency that sets standards for all schools that educate and train physician assistants.  When PA programs comply with or meet these standards, they are said to be accredited.  It’s a little like the FDA approving a new drug; their approval implies that drug is safe, ethical to use, has been manufactured properly, and may be sold.

When a PA program is accredited, it means that it meets professional standards for things like:

  • Program organization – the faculty are duly licensed, there is a Director, there is at least one full-time support staff member, etc).
  • Curriculum – students will be learning the proper material, in the proper sequence, and will be tested in a standardized way.
  • Clinical preceptorships – the hospital and other specialty rotations will be adequately supervised in appropriate settings, you will be protected from lawsuits, etc.
  • Site matters – the learning environment has restrooms, computers, it is safe to be in, etc.

and many others.  PA schools are usually re-accredited every five years, which means that every five years they need to demonstrate to ARC-PA that they continue to meet its standards.  If they need to work on their program, they can be accredited for a shorter period to “motivate” them to make the needed changes.

pa student graduatingHow Important is PA School Accreditation?

To put it bluntly, it’s crucial.  In order for you to sit for the PANCE licensing exam to become a PA in the United States, you must graduate from an accredited program.  Period.*

This is a requirement of the profession, and it assures that 1) PAs are well and appropriately educated, and 2) students don’t get ripped off in the process.  Because of the accreditation process, your Uncle Goober can’t throw a sketchy program together and collect your tuition (no accreditation–>no license when you graduate–>no students–>no money/motivation for Uncle Goober to do so.  The end result is that people don’t become bad PAs — at least not because their program was bad.

Unaccredited Programs

There really only two kinds of PA programs that are not accredited:

  1. Programs that are working to become accredited.  New programs must apply for accreditation and be evaluated by ARC-PA before they can graduate students.  Often, these programs can accept students because they are provisionally accredited,  but no student will graduate and be eligible for the licensing exam until the accreditation process is complete.  Provisional accreditation is a designation by ARC-PA that means a school is in the process of having its application for accreditation reviewed, and it is expected to pass (if all goes well, it will obtain accreditation).   It’s a little like being hired, pending a background check; if you pass the background check, the job is yours.  Provisional accreditation is limited to three years.  If a program cannot satisfy ARC-PA’s requirements in that time, they lose their accreditation status, and may not admit students.  Starting in an unaccredited program is risky.  It may turn out fine, but if some aspect of the program is lacking and can’t be fixed, the school’s accreditation may fall through, and then you’re out of luck.  Unless you have no other option, avoid unaccredited or provisionally accredited PA schools.
  2. Programs that have lost their accreditation.  This is a similar situation.  All programs have growing pains – times when their faculty, curriculum, funding, or other factors are in flux.  If a program has problems and is out of compliance with ARC-PA’s standards, it can lose its accreditation.  When this happens, the program must either close, or restart the accreditation process.  As an applicant, you usually won’t know that a program’s accreditation is in jeopardy until it is lost – they keep these things quiet.  End result?  It’s not something you should worry about unless you’re hearing big rumblings of problems at a program.

Questions to Ask

If you’re considering a school, you might want to ask the following questions (before your interview):

  • Is your program fully accredited?  If not, what is its accreditation status?  If it is provisionally accredited, how much longer can it remain provisionally accredited?  (Remember: provisional accreditation is limited to three years).
  • How long has the program been continuously accredited?  The longer the better, generally.
  • When is the program up for review of its accreditation?

These questions will give you a feel for the health of the program.  And remember: accreditation doesn’t tell you much about how good a program is; it only tells you if it has met the minimum standards for the profession.

*The only exceptions to the PA school accreditation requirement are PA programs run by the military.