Dismissals Over Academic Progression—Physician’s Assistants

As physician assistants will attest to, although they may not have the same academic requirements as medical doctors, studying to become a PA is a challenging undertaking. The PA profession maintains rigorous standards for entry, graduation, and academic progression. Programs include a sometimes-grueling schedule of coursework, study, and clinical experience, and even the most highly qualified students may struggle to keep pace with the demands while maintaining the minimum grades required to graduate.

Students who fall behind may face dismissal from their program if they do not meet certain academic expectations, in some cases after just one year of enrollment. While most PA schools provide remediation options to help students get back on track, many of these options are inefficient at best and self-defeating at worst. In addition, many PA students fall behind through no fault of their own—for example, due to mental health struggles, family crises, etc.

If you're a PA student facing possible dismissal over academic progression issues, your entire career may be put at risk--not to mention the loss of time and money invested in your education. We've compiled the following commonly asked questions and answers so you can know what to expect and how to protect your interests.

What Are the Academic Expectations for Physician's Assistant Students?

Most accredited PA programs gear their curriculum to meet the Physician Assistant Profession Competencies requirements, a set of outcomes approved by all four of the major national PA associations (NCCPA, ARC-PA, PAEA, and AAPA). These standards prepare the PA graduate to meet established competencies in the following areas:

  • Medical knowledge
  • Interpersonal and communications skills
  • Patient care
  • Professionalism
  • Practice-based learning and improvement
  • Systems-based practice

The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) is the accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. The ARC-PA sets accreditation standards for all PA training programs, and these requirements are uniform from program to program. Based on these standards, PA students must maintain a minimum GPA of 3.0 or higher while becoming proficient in all the competencies described above. Students who fall below this GPA may be placed on academic probation and/or remediation in an effort to boost their grades.

How Do PA Schools Monitor Academic Progress?

PA programs typically maintain a strong focus on supporting the academic development of their students, providing dedicated advisors to support them. Professional advisors help students identify ways to achieve academic success and steer clear of obstacles that might impede it. Advisors also work with faculty members to ensure that students can continue developing competencies while attaining grade-level benchmarks.

Students are required to submit academic progress reports to their advisors regularly, typically once per term. From time to time, program faculty members may also conduct reviews for students with slower-than-expected grades. In addition, student academic progress is overseen by a committee or board that monitors student progress, recommends remedial solutions when necessary, and recommends dismissal for students with repeated shortfalls. This board (often called a Student Progress Committee or similar term) usually consists of faculty members, students, or both.

What Remediation Options Are Available for PA Students?

For students who don't make sufficient academic progress, the school will generally prescribe some form of remediation in an attempt to avoid dismissing the student. Every school will have different policies and solutions in place regarding remediation, but generally speaking, the student progress committee will likely recommend one or more of the following:

  • Repeating an exam
  • Repeating a course
  • Repeating a semester or school year
  • Tutoring
  • Leave of absence (e.g., to deal with personal issues)

Should I Automatically Accept Remediation When Offered?

Not always. While remediation may be the best alternative to dismissal, there are times when a remediation program is helpful or even advisable. For example:

  • Sometimes PA programs rush to place students into remediation without exploring better options or customizing the program to the student's needs—placing an unnecessary burden on them in the process.
  • Student grades are sometimes miscalculated or with unfair bias, placing the student into remedial territory when the student is not actually underperforming.
  • Some schools treat remediation as merely a compulsory step before they can justify the dismissal of the student—and therefore, they don't tailor the program to be beneficial.

For these and other reasons, it's always advisable to consult with an experienced attorney-advisor before accepting a school-imposed remediation program. With skilled negotiation, it's possible to explore other options to dismissal besides remediation or at least modify the remedial program, so it benefits you rather than harms you.

Can Remediation Ultimately Hurt My Academic or Career Prospects?

Yes, it can. Remediation can be a constructive alternative to dismissal, but there's always the possibility academic remediation could hurt students, too. Some examples of how this could happen:

  • Remediation can cost the student additional time and energy, taking them away from other academic responsibilities.
  • Students only have a certain amount of time to complete a PA degree program. Remediation may require excessive repeat courses, making it more difficult to complete the PA program within the required time frame.
  • Remedial courses can result in additional tuition costs and/or student debt.
  • Remediation often places a negative mark on a student's academic record, decreasing the competitiveness of their application for future jobs or residencies.

Because of these risks, you should always weigh remediation carefully. It's always preferable to dismissal, but it can do more harm than good if it's not truly tied to your needs.

Can I Appeal a Bad Grade?

Yes, you can—and quite often, a successful grade appeal can make remediation unnecessary or irrelevant, so appealing a grade is often used as a strategy to avoid remediation.

Each school has its own rules and protocols for grade appeals, so you'll need to reference the school's procedures, which usually involves filling out a form and meeting with an advisor or committee to present evidence for why your grade should be changed.

You may be able to overturn a negative grade on any of the following grounds:

  • The grade was influenced by instructor bias, not academic performance
  • An error made in the calculation of a grade
  • The grade was not assigned according to guidelines established by the school
  • The instructor didn't properly inform you about the criteria for determining the grade
  • Student performance was assessed using inconsistent guidelines
  • The grade was assigned based not on your merit but discrimination, harassment, or spite

If the School Is Considering Dismissing Me, What Is the Process for Doing So?

Every PA program will have its own specific policies and procedures for responding to poor academic progression. This information may be found in the Policies and Procedures information published by the school. That said, the disciplinary process for most schools usually involves the following steps:

  • Review. The Student Progress Committee will review your progress to determine whether further action is needed.
  • Notification. The school will inform you about your possible dismissal and the next steps so that you can respond.
  • Hearing. The committee will usually schedule a formal hearing where you will appear before the board or committee and have an opportunity to present your side of the story.
  • Final determination. The committee/board will decide whether or not to recommend dismissal from the PA program.
  • Appeal. You can appeal against an adverse decision before it becomes final.

What Are the Ramifications for My Career if Dismissed From the Physician's Assistant Program?

Dismissal from a PA program could have devastating long-term effects on your academic and career prospects. Dismissed students often face the following consequences:

  • Difficulty in finding future employment as a physician's assistant. Many hospitals, clinics, or other employers will not consider hiring you after seeing you were dismissed for unsatisfactory performance.
  • If you find employment, a dismissal will be considered evidence of poor performance and may prejudice your advancement.
  • You may not receive credit for courses you completed before being dismissed—this can cause problems if you want to take additional graduate courses or need those course credits to get into another program in the future.
  • You may have difficulty getting into another PA program. Most schools will not take you in as a transfer student if you're dismissed from one program. This can make it problematic to resume or complete your education.
  • You may face extended financial difficulties. You will lose all tuition money invested in your education so far, and if you took out student loans, those would still need to be repaid.

Because there are so many potentially severe repercussions for being dismissed from a PA program, it's in your best interests to do everything possible to avoid dismissal. Hiring a skilled attorney-advisor can make a huge difference in the outcome of your case and quite possibly save your career.

How Do I Appeal a Dismissal From PA School?

You have the right to appeal any adverse decision from the school before it becomes final, including decisions to dismiss. The school will have a set procedure for students wishing to file an appeal, which may include a separate hearing. Depending on school policies, you may be able to appeal your dismissal on any of the following grounds:

  • A procedural error affected the outcome negatively.
  • The committee failed to consider relevant factors when making their dismissal decision.
  • The hearing was tainted with bias. The committee was biased against you and prevented you from having a fair hearing.

Most schools only allow students a short window to file an appeal, generally between 5-15 days. This means you have only a short period of time to present your most compelling argument for why your dismissal should be overturned. In situations like these, having an attorney-advisor to help you prepare can be invaluable.

What Happens in an Appeal To Avoid Dismissal?

The exact process will depend on school policies, but most student appeals include the following three stages:

  • Submitting a written request. For some schools, this is simply a way of informing them about your intention to appeal. The request itself constitutes the appeal for other schools, and you'll submit all documentation and arguments in writing.
  • Consideration stage. School authorities will review your appeal and take into consideration any additional evidence. You may have an informal meeting with a Dean or a formal hearing in front of an appeals committee. Sometimes, the consideration stage is simply a meeting of the appeals committee to review your written request.
  • Final decision. The person deemed the “final word” (usually a Dean) will decide on your appeal. One of three outcomes will occur at this point: 1) The decision to dismiss will be reversed, and you'll be reinstated into the PA program; 2) You will be reinstated with conditions (e.g., required remediation) that must be met; or 3) The decision to dismiss will be upheld. The school regards this decision as the final word in the matter, regardless of the outcome.

How Can an Attorney-Advisor Help Me Avoid Dismissal Due to Academic Shortfalls? What Does an Attorney-Advisor Do?

Students are generally not permitted to have official legal representation in student disciplinary matters, but you have the right to hire an attorney in an advisory role. An attorney-advisor will have the training and experience to help guide you through this situation in a way that brings the most favorable outcome. A good attorney-advisor can:

  • Evaluate your academic situation and the school's expectations so you know what is at stake
  • Investigate and identify discrepancies in how the school calculates your grades and/or evaluates your performance
  • Evaluate remediation offers to determine whether they will genuinely benefit you without overburdening you
  • Provide guidance on how you can negotiate effectively regarding grades and remediation
  • Help you file successful grade appeals
  • Help you prepare evidence and a compelling defense in disciplinary hearings
  • Assist with appealing your dismissal

In many cases, the involvement of an attorney-advisor can avert unnecessary remediation and/or disciplinary actions—and by extension, rescue your career. Your chances of avoiding dismissal go up exponentially with the help of an attorney-advisor.

Can an Attorney-Advisor Do Anything After I've Exhausted My School's Standard Channels?

Yes, other options may well exist. A skilled national academic attorney may be able to help you if you still face dismissal after having done everything you can through the school's disciplinary process. Colleges and universities generally depend on their Office of General Counsel (OGC) to ensure that the school applies its policies and procedures fairly. A national academic attorney may be able to advocate effectively with your school's OGC for your reinstatement despite your lack of success through standard channels. Let your national academic attorney advocate with the OGC for reinstatement, and you may just save your education. You may also have constitutional and contractual rights that a national academic attorney can help you enforce through the courts. OGC negotiation and relief is the better solution, but litigation could be a necessary last resort.

Being dismissed from a PA program over academic progression issues can completely derail your career prospects. Don't leave your fate to chance; take steps now to protect your future. Attorney Joseph D. Lento is nationally recognized for his success in student issues, including academic progress disputes. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 today for a consultation.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact our offices today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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