Until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—and, sadly, for some time after—many medical and health sciences education institutions routinely rejected Black applicants. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) offered the best—and sometimes only—opportunities for Black students who wanted to study medicine to become doctors, nurses, or physician assistants. Today, Black and minority students can enroll in any medical and health sciences program in the United States. Many still choose to pursue their dreams at HBCUs.
There are many compelling reasons to look into these programs. Perhaps chief among them is that while HBCUs make up just 3 percent of colleges and universities in the US, they produce 27 percent of Black graduates in STEM fields. HBCUs are justly celebrated for encouraging and supporting students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds and giving them the tools they'll need to succeed.
There are more than 40 HBCU nursing programs in the US, but there are only a handful of HBCU physician assistant programs. All are offered by HBCUs with well-regarded medical schools. Like all master's degree programs for aspiring PAs, HBCU physician assistant programs tend to be competitive—sometimes even more competitive than med school.
Ready to learn more? In this article about HBCU physician assistant programs, we cover the following:
There are many hands-on healthcare jobs that involve patient care. In addition to doctors and nurses, there are radiation therapists, psychiatric techs, perfusionists, paramedics, and a whole host of other patient-care professionals—including physician assistants.
PAs spend their days examining, diagnosing, monitoring, and developing treatment plans for patients, much like MDs and advanced-practice registered nurses. They are technically classified as medical support professionals supervised by doctors, but they are also directly responsible for patients and work autonomously in many settings. You'll find PAs in almost every medical specialty and location. You've probably been treated by a PA at least once in your life.
Becoming a physician assistant means enrolling in, and graduating from, an ARC-PA-accredited PA master's program and then sitting for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). Physician assistant degrees go by a variety of names, including:
These PA programs take between 22 and 33 months to complete and require students to complete more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations.
There are many reasons an aspiring PA might gravitate toward full-time and part-time HBCU physician assistant programs. Financial concerns can play a role in their choice. HBCU tuition across all programs tends to be about 30 percent lower than that of comparable non-HBCU institutions. As a result, HBCU students graduate with less debt and start their careers on a stronger footing.
Most HBCUs with medical education programs also welcome underserved populations like low-income and first-generation college students—two groups that face challenges in getting into college and then making it to graduation.
More importantly, many Black students feel more supported at HBCUs. In HBCU programs, students are exposed to more diversity in the faculty, mentors, and their clinical rotations, creating havens in which Black students can thrive. Representation matters, after all. As PA student Amber Henry put it in an essay for Op-Med, "Though African Americans have the largest population amongst minorities, they have the lowest representation in some of the most affluent medical professions such as physicians and PAs. Why is that? Is it because there is a lack of education about these professions? Or is it because there are not enough minority medical providers to serve as mentors? In my experience, I think it is both."
At first glance, not much. There are just over 100 HBCUs in the United States, and all of them have different strengths. The same can be said for HBCU physician assistant programs. Some have high-tech learning tools. Some have a reputation for providing more clinical training opportunities. Some emphasize social justice and reducing healthcare disparities in the PA curriculum. As discussed above, these programs also confer different degrees.
However, what they tend to have in common is that they have strong community ties, attempt to reach urban and rural underserved populations, promote equal access in healthcare, and include minority concerns and perspectives in coursework. Like all HBCU programs, HBCU physician assistant programs allow students to connect with and work with same-race role models and mentors. This is especially important because Black women and men still face many hurdles in pursuing medical careers.
HBCU physician assistant programs are rare. The top programs can be found at these schools:
Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science was founded in 1966 in response to the lack of medical facilities in Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood. Since then, the school has earned a reputation for training lifelong learners and leaders in healthcare. The school's 27-month physician assistant program is aligned with the university vision, which is focused on improving the health of underserved and diverse communities and reducing healthcare disparities. The curriculum centers around various innovative teaching, research, and service activities, and PA program students are given ample opportunities to connect and collaborate with doctors, nurses, public health professionals, patients, and students in other disciplines. This program has a 100 percent PANCE pass rate.
The rigorous 29-month Meharry Medical College Physician Assistant Sciences program is relatively new. Notably, the program considers applicants without prior healthcare experience. According to the program guide, the school gives special consideration to applications submitted by "people of color, the disadvantaged, and others regardless of race or ethnicity that are committed to increasing health care access and improving the health and well-being of minority and underserved communities." The curriculum emphasizes clinical coursework, clinical skills training, supervised clinical practice instruction, and public health policy and advocacy. PA students have access to a state-of-the-art simulation lab and Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) learning platforms. The school keeps class sizes small.
The name Morehouse may bring to mind Morehouse College, which is both an HBCU and the largest male-only institution offering bachelor's degrees in the US, but Morehouse School of Medicine became an independent entity in 1981. Their 28-month, seven-semester PA program is relatively new; it was launched to respond to rising health care needs, locally and across the globe. The program aims to increase access to high-quality, compassionate medical care in underserved rural and urban communities across Georgia. Applicants who demonstrate a specific interest in meeting the healthcare needs of underserved groups are prioritized.
The Masters of Medical Science in Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore earned its ARC-PA accreditation in 2020. They enrolled its first cohort of just 20 students in August of that year. This program stresses community connections; the university has made a point of establishing partnerships with organizations like the Peninsula Regional Medical Center, Atlantic General Hospital, and University of Maryland Shore Regional Health, as well as with local doctors and healthcare providers. Students in the program complete more than 2,000 clinical rotation hours in a variety of specialty settings.
Administered by the Xavier University College of Pharmacy, the 28-month Physician Assistant Studies program includes 16 months of clinical training in the highly regarded Ochsner Health Network. Xavier University is known for its STEM and medical programs, as well as its institutional peer-led tutoring and drill class system. PA program students receive significant support from peers and faculty, with attrition rates in science courses well below average at the school as a result. As is the case in many HBCU programs, Xavier University's program emphasizes patient-centered primary care in rural and underserved communities. This program is so new that the school hasn't published PANCE pass rates, but the goal is to produce a rate consistently above the national average.
"When I graduated from a physician assistant program three decades ago, of the fifty PA programs in the nation, only two were offered at HBCUs: Howard University and Charles Drew University," wrote Dr. Peggy Valentine, a PA and RN who served as director of the Howard University PA Program and a founding member of the African Heritage PA Caucus. More HBCU physician assistant programs exist today (although Howard is no longer one of them) among the nation's 260 ARC-PA accredited programs.
The question remains: why aren't there more? According to Valentine, funding remains a substantial problem. Medical programs are expensive, and HBCUs typically lack the massive endowments that help subsidize costly programs. This problem is particularly acute in specialized programs that lack the widespread name recognition of law degrees, MBAs, MDs, and MSNs. "A national strategy is needed to support and monitor the outcomes of health profession programs on HBCU campuses," Valentine argues. "Securing funds from foundations and federal grants may be required to strengthen their educational programs."
That goal is essential, because HBCUs continue to play an outsize role in helping Black students and people from a diverse range of backgrounds enter the the healthcare field. One study found that "strongest predictor of Black student enrollment is the number of African American department chairs at a particular school." HBCUs are the only schools withnotable numbers of Black department chairs and medical faculty members.
Enrollment is only one piece of the puzzle yet to be solved, however. The support and mentorship students get at HBCUs from enrollment through graduation and beyond are ultimately much more important. As one commenter on a Reddit thread about HBCU physician assistant programs put it, "I think an HBCU will be the best type of program for me to learn and grow in. It'll give me tools to succeed and cope when working in the white-dominated, systematically racially disadvantaged field that is medicine."
Questions or feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org