April 6, 2021

Accelerated Curriculums: Potential Benefits … and Harms

by Brett Lambert, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, North Mississippi Medical Center

For those looking to pursue a career in pharmacy or other health professions, the decision as to which school to attend is often based on a few key factors. Important factors applicants typically assess include the duration of the program, the passage rates on licensure exams, the quality of the education, the benefit to their career, and the memories that can be made with peers or the quality of the social life. Some colleges/schools offering an accelerated program and prospective students are left to consider the benefits of completing their desired curriculum faster than normal. It is therefore important to consider the potential benefits (and harms) of completing an accelerated curriculum.

Accelerated programs provide an opportunity for students to complete their preferred professional program in a shorter period of time than a normal curriculum length. For pharmacy schools, this means students complete their doctoral degree in three years rather than the usual four years. To accomplish the same curriculum in 3 years, accelerate program conduct classes year-round without end of semester breaks like summer or winter break. According to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, as of July 2020, there are a total of 142 colleges or schools of pharmacy.1 Of these schools, there are at least fifteen programs that offer an accelerated Pharm.D. curriculum.

One way to determine if accelerated programs are as good or, perhaps, superior to traditional programs is to compare pass rates on the licensure exam.  In pharmacy, the NAPLEX (North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination) is required to become a pharmacist.  The NAPLEX first attempt passage rates from the past three years (2017,2018, and 2019) for the fifteen accelerate programs were substantially lower than the national average passage rate. Using data reported by the National Association of Board of Pharmacy,2 accelerated programs averaged a passage rate that was 3-5% lower than the average national passage rate.

While this data is not a full analysis of the data available, it does provide some insight as to how these programs compare to the traditional four-year programs. However, the length of the curriculum is but one factor and there are other factors that could affect NAPLEX pass rates. One of which is the age (or maturity) of the program. In a recent survey that examined pharmacy school characteristics and their first-time NAPLEX pass rates, pharmacy schools established before 2000 had significantly higher first attempt pass rates on the NAPLEX than those established after.3 Thus historic (or more mature) programs seem to produce students better prepared to pass the NAPLEX on the first attempt. The authors also reported that between 2015 and 2016 when the NAPLEX testing structure was changed, a smaller percentage of four-year programs experienced a 10% or greater decrease in first-time pass rates than three-year accelerated programs (c2=5.54, p=.02).3 The pass rate dropped from 92.5 to 86.6 among traditional four-year programs and from 90.2 to 80.4 in three-year accelerated programs.  This difference was significant.3

Another study compared the length of advanced pharmacy practice experiences (APPE) to determine the correlation with first-time pass rates. The lengths of the APPEs included four, five, or six-week blocks.4 However, the results provide no evidence that APPE rotation length correlated with a higher first attempt pass rate for the NAPLEX. This would argue that the length of clinical rotations does not affect a student’s ability to pass the NAPLEX.

One metric that some programs use to boast about the quality of graduates they produce is the number of students that match with PGY-1 and PGY-2 residency programs. According to the National Matching Service, the official matching program for PGY-1 and PGY-2’s, in 2020 there was a total of 7535 students who registered for the match and 3904 who matched; which is a 51.8% match rate for all programs. The 15 three-year programs had a match rate of 39.7% compared to a 53.1% match rate for four-year pharmacy programs.6

Another difference between programs of different lengths that is more difficult to quantify is the impact an accelerated curriculum might have on a student’s social life. A curriculum that completely consumes a student’s life and does not allow enough time to get involved in professional or social organizations, maintain hobbies, or spend time with family reduces opportunities for a healthy social life. These barriers to social and professional development could affect the student’s interactions with patients, peers, or co-workers.

Given the potentially negative consequences of accelerated curriculum, why would any student consider applying to or attending such a program? The most obvious benefit is that by graduating a year early the student enters practice a year sooner – which translates in an extra year of work, an extra year of practical experience as a pharmacist, and can lead to an improved financial situation in both the short and long-term. However, there is no promise of a better job, career, or future opportunities.

The debate about accelerated professional programs is not unique to pharmacy — the medical professional is now deliberating the merits of accelerated medical school programs. Recently, there have been medical school programs that are reviving a three-year program structure. These three-year accelerated programs originated during WWII when there was a shortage of physicians.5 Once the war was over, the students who graduated from the accelerated programs felt the need for more courses.5 Which suggests that graduates from these accelerated programs didn’t feel fully prepared despite the fact that they received on-the-job experience. Surprisingly, these three-year programs were not discontinued due to lower pass rates of the USMLE (the United States Medical Licensing Examination) compared to those of four-year programs. Indeed, there are no differences between the pass rates based on program length.5

It seems to me that when designing a program and teaching students, there needs to be time for the information to sink in. The literature suggests that out-of-class learning, including extra-curricular activities, can be very beneficial to one's career. This includes building leadership skills through service in professional organizations and developing social skills.  Students also need time to think deeply about the material covered in class. There are many factors that influence licensure pass rates, but I don’t think we know yet the key ingredients to creating a shorter curriculum that is equally effective.


  1. Academic Pharmacy's Vital Statistics. American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy. Published July 2020. Accessed February 20, 2021.
  2. North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination Passing Rates for 2017—2019 Graduates Per Pharmacy School. National Association of Board of Pharmacy. Published February 25, 2020. Accessed February 20, 2021.
  3. Williams JS, Spivey CA, Hagemann TM, Phelps SJ, Chisholm-Burns M. Impact of Pharmacy School Characteristics on NAPLEX First-time Pass Rates. Am J Pharm Educ. 2019;83(6):Article 6875.
  4. Ried LD. Length of advanced pharmacy practice experience and first-time NAPLEX pass rate of US pharmacy programs. Curr Pharm Teach Learn. 2020;12(1):14-19.
  5. Schwartz CC, Ajjarapu AS, Stamy CD, Schwinn DA. Comprehensive history of 3-year and accelerated US medical school programs: a century in review. Med Educ Online. 2018;23(1):1530557
  6. NUMBER OF APPLICANTS APPLYING FOR PGY1 PROGRAMS BY SCHOOL 2020 MATCH – COMBINED PHASE I AND PHASE II. National Matching Services. Published 2020. Accessed April 1, 2021.

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