The Best Physician Assistant Schools & Programs in California

Physician assistants are medical professionals that work to improve healthcare access and quality for people around the globe. They are responsible for diagnosing illness, developing treatment plans, and serving as a healthcare provider. With thousands of hours of medical training, they are found in every specialty from primary care to surgery.

In order to be certified as a PA, students must complete a master’s degree in the subject and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). Admittance to PA programs is highly competitive, requiring prior coursework similar to medical requirements. In addition, prior healthcare experience through work as a medical assistant, EMT, or paramedic will help applicants stand out.

The majority of PA programs tend to last 3 years, including both classroom instruction and clinical rotations. Students build on their undergraduate education in basic and behavioral sciences with more advanced courses such as anatomy & physiology, pharmacology, microbiology, and medical ethics. In order to develop the necessary skills, clinical courses emphasize primary care in clinics, physician offices, or long-term care facilities. Along with courses, PAs develop professionally through student organizations and laboratories.

There are over 10,000 PAs in California, with most specializing in surgical, primary care, and family medicine fields. Due to the large population and high demand, these professionals are well-paid with an average salary of $103,000. As a result, the state is home to the second most certified PAs in the nation and a popular choice for students.

Here are the best physician assistant programs in California, based on the US News Ranking for the top PA schools. In the case of a tie in the rankings, College Gazette will determine the tiebreaker.

7. Loma Linda University (Loma Linda, CA)

Loma Linda University
Brianweedster, Nichol-Hall, marked as public domain

At Loma Linda University, students are trained to be successful physician assistants, emphasizing primary care. The program can be completed in as little as 24 months of full-time study. Broken into two phases, the curriculum includes didactic courses and clinical rotations. 

The didactic phase allows students to take courses in applied medical and clinical preparatory sciences to be applied throughout their career.

In the clinical phase, students interact with diverse populations through a total of eight hands-on experiences. This helps to develop necessary PA skills in preparation for their future careers. Students at Loma Linda University also have the opportunity to participate in International Clinical Rotations. From Honduras to Sierra Leone to Malawi, future PAs can practice their clinical skills in a global location.

The comprehensive curriculum at Loma Linda prepares students for success. In the last four years, at least 98% of each class has graduated. Many go on to work in primary care, with 16% of graduates working in medically underserved areas. This commitment to the underserved can be seen throughout the school’s alumni network. For example, one previous graduate works as a PA in Baja, Mexico, providing the only medical care in the area.

6. Western University of Health Sciences (Pomona, CA)

Western University of Health Sciences
Ryan Hoff, Ethan Allen Park at WesternU, CC BY-SA 4.0

WesternU’s PA program is well-known for its record of consistently high first-time pass rates on the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination. After graduating and being certified to practice, WesternU alumni enjoy a lifelong connection with the university. PA graduates are well-respected and in high demand throughout the healthcare community.

In order to meet the demands of healthcare organizations, WesternU requires interprofessional education to boost communication and decrease medical errors. First-year PA students meet with fellow students from the eight different professional programs, including osteopathic medicine, physical therapy, pharmacy, nursing, veterinary medicine, optometry, and dental medicine. Under the supervision of a faculty member, the interdisciplinary team works together to assess various case studies.

WesternU houses over 130 student organizations for students to develop personally and professionally. The Physician Assistant Student Society, established in 2012, helps promote the PA profession and represent the university at a national level. Students interested in hands-on community service in Southern California can join the Inland Empire Outreach club. The goals of the club are to foster professional connections with caregivers and volunteer with patient populations.

5. UC Davis (Davis, CA)

UC Davis
Venprof, Animal Science Building, UC Davis, CC BY-SA 4.0

The PA program at UC Davis is led by an interdisciplinary team of over 55 faculty members. The Nursing Science and Health-Care Leadership Graduate Group comprises faculty with expertise in nursing, medicine, biostatistics, pharmacy, public health, and other subjects. In collaboration with community partners, the PA faculty offers courses individualized to each student’s interests. In addition, they provide research and practice opportunities to promote well-rounded learning.

This interdisciplinary education is a hallmark of the UC Davis School of Nursing. The Physician Assistant program is the only one of its kind nationwide where PA and nurse practitioner students are educated together. Using a combination of nursing and medical models of education, the university remains at the forefront of the rapidly evolving healthcare environment. Graduates are skilled and adaptable enough to become agents of change.

Prior to the beginning classes, PA students participate in a Leadership Immersion Experience. Students develop one-on-one faculty relationships and complete team-building exercises with their peers. This orientation helps PA students develop critical leadership and collaboration skills and serves as a foundation for their future courses at UC Davis.

4. Samuel Merritt University (Oakland, CA)

At Samuel Merritt University, PA students support student success through medical simulation technology. The advanced healthcare simulation facilities enable students to collaborate on real-world scenarios. This hands-on practice bolsters technical abilities, critical thinking, teamwork, and communication. 

Using a model environment where patient safety is the priority, SMU emphasizes the importance of positive patient outcomes. In addition, the Health Sciences Simulation Center provides immediate feedback to reinforce classroom learning.

SMU physician assistants are compassionate health professionals who aim to make healthcare more accessible to those in need. Service-learning experiences give students the tools to reduce disparities in clinics, schools, faith communities, and shelters. The International Healthcare Club, led by SMU faculty, participates in medical mission trips to Panama twice a year.

After graduating from SMU, PAs go on to make a difference across the state and nationwide. An impressive 100% of the program’s alumni find work in a clinical setting within six months of graduation. In addition, the licensure and certification rates exceed averages, showing the school’s academic excellence. By providing patient care, conducting research, or teaching, SMU graduates go on to make a difference in the healthcare community. Some common employers include Stanford Health Care, UCSF Benioff Oakland, and Sutter Health.

3. Touro University California (Vallejo, CA)

The unique program at Touro University allows students to earn master’s degrees in both physician assistant studies and public health in just 33 months. By combining these two professions, TUC graduates are trained to consider the individuals and communities they serve. Coursework includes education on health disparities and specific issues faced by medically underserved communities. Along with the public service focus, students study the same topics as other top-tier PA schools, such as anatomy, pharmacology, behavioral medicine, and more.

The school’s mission of increasing access to care is seen through its highly successful program and graduates. For example, many of the required clinical rotations focus on medically underrepresented populations. Furthermore, 13% of recent graduates from Touro’s PA program work in clinics serving medically underserved communities, compared to a national average of 3%.

Due to the opportunities offered at TUC, the application process is highly competitive. Each year, 10-15% of those who apply are interviewed, and ultimately, only 48 students are admitted. This is not surprising considering the unique clinical offerings and accelerated program of study. Students learn from top faculty members, resulting in an overall PANCE pass rate of over 98% for the past 15 years.

2. Stanford University (Stanford, CA)

Stanford University
King of Hearts, Stanford University from Hoover Tower, CC BY-SA 3.0

Stanford’s PA program utilizes the flipped classroom educational model to redefine medical education. Traditional lecture content is shared online, allowing PA students to participate in interactive learning during classroom time. Other innovative strategies such as leadership tracks and capstone projects will encourage the next generation of healthcare leaders. Community health, health services and policy research, clinical research, medical education, and healthcare administration are the leadership tracks available for PA students.

Along with unique strategies, Stanford uses state-of-the-art technology to educate PA students. For example, the Center for Immersive and Simulation-based Learning has a variety of options available to help students practice their hands-on skills. In addition, part-task physical trainers help individuals practice hands-on skills over and over again under supervision. On the other hand, virtual reality technology is used for more complicated procedures and surgery. 

After PA students develop their hands-on skills, they can use them in the clinical phase of the program. Thus, Stanford students are exposed to medical care across the lifespan, from infants to the elderly. The program is designed to provide 8-12 weeks of clinical exposure in any interest area.

1. University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA)

University of Southern California
FASTILY, University of Southern California, CC BY-SA 4.0

USC holds the honor of being ranked #1 in California and #10 nationally for their highly successful PA program. This placement, as decided by US News, is a result of peer assessment surveys sent to other schools in the discipline. The school’s strong curriculum emphasizing team-based medicine continues to impress universities and employers across the nation. 

PA students can join a variety of professional organizations and student clubs to pursue their interests and grow their network. The National Student Challenge Bowl, hosted by the American Academy of Physician Assistants, challenges PA students to answer questions about their field. In 2018, USC’s team beat out 95 other teams to bring home the title. Their victory was a result of the intensive curriculum at USC and months of training.

While at USC, PA students have the opportunity to contribute to their research profile. Both laboratory and clinical settings provide access to unique experiences in the laboratory. An impressive six departments make up the top 10 in NIH funding nationally, including ophthalmology, physiology, preventative medicine, orthopedic surgery, neurology, and otolaryngology.