The decision to become a physician assistant is a noble but big one. PAs work at hospitals, medical offices, nursing homes, retail clinics, community health centers, and in the federal government, the largest single employer of PAs, where they can be found at the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Justice.
Becoming a PA often means taking on student loans, which begs the question: Is PA school worth the debt?
A crowdsourced spreadsheet on the PA-run website The PA Life provides an overview of schools and their costs for in- and out-of-state students. The average resident total of tuition and fees to graduate from an accredited PA program in 2018 was $80,000, and the average nonresident cost came to $91,000, according to the site.
Before sticker shock sets in, the average salary of certified PAs in 2020 was $113,200, the median salary was $105,000, and overall average salaries had increased 15% in six years, according to the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. Another encouraging point of comparison comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reports a median salary for PAs of $112,300—and 90% earning about $157,000.
Once those salaries are claimed and regularly earned, there’s the matter of loan repayment. This guide will help readers consider strategies to handle PA school debt.
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Physician Assistant (PA) School Repayment Options
Fortunately, there are options available for PAs who are mindful of interest and debt accumulating in their name. The big one is the federal government’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which kicks in “if you are employed by a U.S. federal, state, local, or tribal government or not-for-profit organization.” PSLF forgives the remaining balance on Direct Loans after 120 qualifying payments (a big number that can often boil down to 10 years’ worth of payments) under a qualifying repayment plan.
More information about that is on the federal government’s student-aid website, studentaid.gov , which includes a tool to determine whether an existing loan qualifies and to what degree. Note that “qualifying payments” under this program means payments made no later than 15 days past the due date, for the full amount, and made while on a repayment plan.
The 120 qualifying payments don’t necessarily have to map onto 10 years—it might take longer. Any gaps in payment effectively “pause” the plan, which could mean making payments while working one qualifying job, quitting, and then picking up somewhere else later with another job that also qualifies. One of the main incentives of PSLF is it helps make careers that may not be that lucrative out of the gate, or be prohibitively expensive to approach that gate in the first place, a little easier to approach or get started on. Applying for PSLF is usually straightforward.
PSLF is just one option to help curb PA school debt. An Income-Driven Repayment Plan is another possibility to make monthly payments potentially easier to handle. “Income-Driven Repayment” is an umbrella for four plans: Income-Contingent Repayment, Pay As You Earn, Revised Pay As You Earn, and Income-Based Repayment. Similar to Public Service Loan Forgiveness, the motivation for these plans is working toward loan forgiveness—if PAs can’t qualify for PSLF, possibly because they work for a private employer, they could still receive loan forgiveness after 20 or 25 years of repayment under an Income-Driven Repayment Plan.
Something to be aware of here is that without a PSLF plan, the forgiven portion of a loan may be treated as taxable income—meaning breathing a sigh of relief over no more debt, but then feeling the pain of a sizable tax bill the year loans are forgiven.
Other Payment Programs
There are also federal and state programs that reimburse health care workers in underserved areas, also called Health Professional Shortage Areas. The Health Resources & Services Administration offers a searchable online database of shortage areas by state and county, and a tool to check if a location has been officially designated as an underserved area.
Then there are State-based Loan Repayment Programs, whose financial incentive can vary depending on specialty. Colorado, for example, offers $50,000 for a full-time PA ($25,000 for a part-time PA), and PAs must “agree to work for a term of three years at an approved site, work part-time or full-time with a minimum of clinical contact hours, and also meet the hourly requirements during the entire service obligation.”
States vary in requirements and awards. The Health Resources & Services Administration also is of help in looking into SLRPs.
Planning for the Future
One way to minimize the shock of a future tax bill from a student loan or the general strain of shouldering PA school debt is to build a budget—and stick to it. Although pretty much everyone knows that budgeting is a smart idea, few actually put it into practice: According to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, only 2 in 5 U.S. adults say they maintain a budget and keep close track of spending on things like food, housing, and entertainment.
Because budgeting is a huge topic and can often involve either resetting or revisiting basic approaches to one’s finances, it might be a good idea to read these guides on creating a monthly budget and building flexibility into a budget.
Here’s another, on building momentum to pay off student loans faster.
Refinancing School Debt
It’s no secret that pretty much any type of higher education career often means taking on considerable debt. If it reaches a point where making real progress on repaying the loans feels nearly impossible, federal student loan repayment and forgiveness programs either don’t apply or aren’t the right fit, or personal loans are involved, then refinancing with a private lender might be a good option.
For a PA with an intense workload who needs to focus on patients, not on different payments and interest rates, one simple monthly payment might lower the blood pressure. With refinancing, a new loan is used to pay off one or more existing federal or private loans. The goals are that one payment, and a lower interest rate based on the borrower’s finances.
It might be worth reading this guide to refinancing student loans or crunching some numbers on a student loan refinancing calculator. Don’t forget: Refinancing federal student loans with a private lender means a borrower is no longer eligible for many of the state and federal programs mentioned above, or other protections and benefits extended to federal student loan borrowers.
Making PA School Work
These are just a few of the strategies to pay off student loans more quickly.
PAs who think refinancing their student loans with SoFi® sounds good will benefit by knowing that they can choose between saving on their monthly payment or saving on total student loan interest. A new SoFi® loan will have no application or origination fees and no prepayment penalties.
SoFi Student Loan Refinance
If you are a federal student loan borrower, you should consider all of your repayment opportunities including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. Please note that once you refinance federal student loans you will no longer be eligible for current or future flexible payment options available to federal loan borrowers, including but not limited to income-based repayment plans or extended repayment plans.
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SoFi Student Loan Refinance