The community has rallied around the new Master of Science in Physician Assistant (PA) Studies, where doors opened to students in May 2022 at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU).
“It’s been very well received,” says Marie Patterson, DHSc, PA-C and founding program director, who explains that because MTSU is a state school, tuition is “significantly less” than that at private institutions, where the cost for a similar program might be approximately $115,000.
There are several PA programs in the state, she says. The University of Tennessee Health Science Center, the only other state institution hosting a program, is located in the western part of the state.
“We’re the only one in the middle or east,” Patterson says, from Murfreesboro. The Middle Tennessee region consists of 33 counties east of the Tennessee River, with Nashville the largest city.
MTSU’s new 27-month-long program costs approximately $65,000 for in-state residents, while the cost for a student from any of the eight states that border Tennessee is approximately $85,000. That means an attractive rate for students from Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri.
A primary goal has been to attract more PA students from the local area, Patterson says.
“We want them to stay here where there is a lot of need, lots of rural counties with issues accessing care,” she says. “Data shows that PA students are more likely to stay in the state where they attend school.”
Lower tuition costs at MTSU work well because sometimes rural areas don’t pay PAs as much, a challenging factor when these professionals need to pay off student loans.
She says the school prides itself on its “holistic approach” to admissions, resulting in a well-balanced, diverse class. “We welcome a variety of admissions, and we value the experiences those students bring,” says Patterson. (The age range of the newest 30-student cohort is between 24 and 51.)
The new program is itself something of an anomaly, given that its foundation was laid during the peak of COVID-19. Patterson was hired in April 2020 and was off and running to accomplish accreditation. That involved submitting locations for clinical sites—and preceptors—2.5 years before rotations began.
“If you don’t have the support of the community, you won’t get accredited,” Patterson says. The program had to show they could offer eight clinical rotations in different specialties, for 30 spots. Those rotations are typically six weeks in length.
She says the first semester is 20 hours of solid medical curriculum—that’s out of 108 total credit hours.
“We tell students, ‘This is not undergrad, because people’s lives are in your hands, and there’s a lot of information you must learn,’” says Patterson. “‘You’re the one making decisions.’”
Students aren’t left alone with their uncertainties. “We’re constantly mentoring and checking with them, and there’s a lot of encouraging,” she says.
No one said it would be easy, but this program’s first PA class knows their futures are promising, with median pay slightly more than $100,000.
If you’re interested in a PA career in Middle Tennessee, you can get more info at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (615) 494 7790.