Struggles in Admissions Practices Part 3: Competition Among PA Programs

Mar 14, 2023 | PA Admissions Corner

By Jim Pearson and Dr. Scott Massey

Welcome back to PA Admissions Corner, where we discuss the many issues confronting directors of PA admissions programs across the United States. Let’s continue our four-part series on common struggles facing every PA admissions department. Part 1 covered grade inflation (Issue 7), and Part 2 addressed didactic preparedness (Issue 8). Part 3 examines competition. Competition among PA programs is a major factor affecting the admissions process and only will intensify in coming years.

Why is Competition Intensifying so Quickly?

  • In 2010, there were 154 PA programs.
  • By 2015, there were 199.
  • As of September 2020, there are 268 programs—a 26% increase in five years.
  • The ARC-PA projects 53 new programs by March 2023. In less than five years, there will be about 320 programs nationwide.
  • The number of new provisional applicants to the ARC-PA has continued to climb. In 2018, there were 12 new provisional applicants. There were 23 in 2019, 25 in 2020, and 23 in 2021. This trend suggests continued growth in upcoming years.


More Institutions Means Fewer Applicants Per Program

Now let’s extrapolate. The continued growth of new PA programs tells a cautionary tale about the future of admissions.

  1. PA programs will be competing for applicants more arduously as the number of applicants per program begins to decline.
  2. According to CASPA, the average applicant in the latest report had 7.32 designations, which results in artificial inflation of PA program application data.
  3. The exponential growth in PA programs has been predominantly in smaller private institutions, evidenced by 33 of the 43 applicant programs on the ARC-PA website being small private colleges.
  4. The trend toward small private colleges increases the pressure on new programs to fill classes.


Program Faculty and the New Age

Consider this: new provisional programs—which constitute 40% of all PA programs—are often under-resourced with inexperienced faculty. These new programs will be the most vulnerable to failing to meet enrollment goals in the upcoming years. In fact, faculty nationwide have a significant lack of skills in data analysis.

However, this should come as no surprise. Before the rapid PA program growth over the last decade, a program’s admissions process was more passive. PA programs adopted a watch-and-wait process as the queue filled with applicants. There were plentiful pools of applicants and it seemed like everyone had the pick of the litter. Recruitment efforts felt unnecessary. Once the admission cycle deadline passed, programs began reviewing applicants and selecting candidates for interviews. Offers were extended with the assumption that you selecting an applicant for enrollment meant they would come. Programs enjoyed a high conversion rate once their students were offered seats in the program.

PA admissions departments can no longer sit around and wait for applicants and students to matriculate into their programs. With 60+ new programs working their way through the acceptance process, competition will get tighter, and a data-driven approach to admissions is not only desirable; it’s now a prerequisite.


Data-Driven Admissions

Our specialty. Programs must now adopt a more data-driven approach to selecting students more likely to attend their program, so we developed the PA Admissions Pre-Enrollment Risk Modeling Program. Our program was specifically designed to evaluate dozens of different data points within the application, interview, and post-interview admissions process. The goal is to provide help in recruiting, retaining, and graduating PA students who aligned with each program’s individual mission, while reducing attrition and remediation rates.

Here are just a few things we have learned when it comes to competition among PA programs to fill their cohorts with a decreasing share of the applicant pool:

  • Specific data metrics must be assessed to identify ideal candidates, and these metrics are not uniform across programs. Programs have reasons why certain applicants shine brighter than others.
  • Data metrics are important to determine at-risk remediation issues before enrollment (PA Admissions Corner Issue 4 details how to spot and quantify red-flag behaviors during the interview process).
  • Undergraduate GPA is not a strong indicator of student success in PA education, and the weight it is given in decision-making must be balanced with other considerations.
  • PA admissions directors must know the answers to these questions:
    • How is your current admission data ranked?
    • What is the reason for this ranking? Why is it done this way?”
    • How do you currently capture and evaluate your admissions data?


Competition Within Certain Geographic Areas

Your PA program’s geographic location and the competing PA programs within 150-250 miles (on average) of your institution is an important factor in how your applicants view and rank your program. Some areas of the country have a higher concentration of PA programs than others, usually leading to increased competition for the applicant pool in that region.

According to the 2020 PAEA curriculum report, there are:

  • 48 programs in the Northeastern United States
  • 51 programs in the South Atlantic States
  • 36 programs in the Midwest
  • 15 programs in the East South-Central United States
  • 17 programs in the West South-Central United States
  • 15 programs in the Mountain West State and
  • 20 programs in the Pacific Region States.

In each of these regions, there are PA programs that have a superior reputation to their competition. This doesn’t equate to these better-regarded PA programs doing a better job of teaching and graduating their students, it’s the marketplace’s external perception. It may not be correct or fair, but you must accept it and tailor your admissions practices to it to better maintain the competitiveness of your PA program’s admissions department.


Why One Program Wins Over Another

From a competitive perspective, what could cause an applicant to choose another PA program over yours? There are many variables to consider:

  • Tuition. According to the 35th PAEA annual report, 58 public universities reported that the mean tuition was $52,585. 154 private institutions reported that the mean tuition was $95,058. Cost can be a consideration for applicants when considering offers from private institutions versus public. This necessitates effective recruiting and outreach strategies to enhance conversion rates.
  • Matriculation speed. A student may be able to matriculate faster at a competitor’s program.
  • Interview/Acceptance speed. Students may be interviewed more quickly by another program, or they may receive an acceptance letter from another program sooner. If your program uses a fixed admission process, you may be waiting far too long to select students for interviews or inform them that they are accepted into your program. Converting from a fixed to a rolling process can decrease that time span and increase conversion rates. (PA Admissions Corner Issue 3 comprehensively covers admissions cycles.)
  • Reputation. Your competitor’s reputation may be perceived as better, but improving your customer service and increasing your admission department’s focus to its ideal candidates can dramatically raise your reputation.
  • Available jobs. Your competitor’s region or city may have more healthcare employment opportunities.
  • Proximity to home. Your competitor may be closer to home for your candidate. A factor that strongly determines your ideal candidate is whether they live within 150 miles of your campus.
  • Applicant preference. Your competitor’s location may be a “destination” area for young people. The idea of moving to a big city could sound more exciting to some, but a smaller-town environment has its own appeal.

Some of these considerations are outside of your control, but not all of them. It is important to exercise what control you have and emphasize what is different about your program and how that can be highly desirable to certain applicants.


In the next Issue of PA Admissions Corner, we finish our four-part series on Struggles in Admissions Practices across the United States. Continuing the discussion on competition between your program and others, there are 11 relevant questions to ask yourself. How will you interpret the answers to refocus your admissions practices and rethink the way you interact with your applicants?


To your admissions and program success,

Jim Pearson, CEO
Exam Master

Dr. Scott Massey Ph.D., PA-C
Scott Massey LLC

If you are in need of admissions support and services for your PA program, we can help.

Jim Pearson and Dr. Scott Massey have helped hundreds of educational institutions and programs improve their admissions outcomes.

Exam Master supports Physician Assistant Educational Institutions with the following services:

  • Admissions Support Services
  • Student Progression Services
  • Data Services
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Learn more about Exam Master’s products and services and how we support PA education by reaching out to [email protected]

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