Aviation College: Choosing the Right School

** Choosing the right aviation college can be
one of the best ways to jump-start your career.**

Spring is just around the corner, and college acceptance letters are beginning to sprout like crocuses in high school seniors' mailboxes. If you have a student in your household who's been accepted to an aviation college or university, congratulations. If you have a high school junior with birdmanlike aspirations, you might already be scouting for institutions of "higher" learning. Either way, there are some things you could and should be doing in the coming months to ensure your airminded student has the best shot at success on campus, and in the years following graduation. A college education is surely a leg up to a lasting career in aviation.

For those whose course is set for next September, now is a good time to narrow their focus on how they expect to spend their undergraduate time. Part of that decision-making process involves determining precisely what area of aviation they want to get involved in.

Many people equate a career in aviation with an airline pilot job. Unfortunately, that career path isn't the glory ride it used to be. Part of the lost luster has to do with comparing the job today with the way it was in the "good old days." That might not be a fair comparison, since there are many career paths that have also
gotten rockier over the past few decades. Though not necessarily still paved in gold, there is still a lot of good to be said for job track that includes gold-striped epaulets. But it isn't the only way to go, either.

Other ways to pursue a big-jet pilot career include charter operators, cargo carriers, corporate pilot slots, and fractional ownership programs. They all have appeal. In some cases, the less frenetic lifestyle can be more comfortable than that of a major airline crew. There are also requirements for pilots in other roles,
such as law enforcement, news, pipeline patrol, flight instruction – and don't forget the military option. Most aviation-oriented colleges include ROTC opportunities on campus.

College-bound students should also consider related professional areas where aviation needs good people. They include engineering; IT; finance and management; sales and marketing; manufacturing; maintenance; and government jobs with the FAA and other agencies. (I’d mention journalism, but I don’t need the competition.) In most cases, you can build a career that involves significant flying time, even though piloting isn’t the primary element of the job description.

The best part about pursuing these side avenues is that the skills and experience are transferable to other fields as well, should the fascination with wings someday evaporate like the morning dew on a grass runway. In the meantime, this fall’s freshman class can busy themselves researching their possible career paths. If possible, visit airlines, major training facilities, local FBOs, corporate flight departments, FAA air traffic control facilities, aircraft and avionics manufacturers. Talk to professionals about what their jobs are like – what’s good, and what’s not so good. Don’t settle for one opinion, though. You might be catching someone on a bad day; or you might have collared the wrong guy. Conversely, what’s paradise for one person could be less appealing for you.

For juniors beginning the college selection process, there are some clear questions to answer before forking over the application fee. If it's flight training you're after, make sure you get detailed information on costs and programs. Check with current students for their input on how well the flight training program works for
them. Do they find the schedule to be reliable, for example? Are the instructors good at what they do? Does the program allow room for an individual's pace?

If flight training is not on the planned curriculum, does the school have programs in the areas likely to suit your talents and desires? Are there internships available with nearby businesses or government facilities? Often, the relationships forged through internships pave the way for permanent employment after graduation. And it allows the student to take the potential employer for a test drive, too.

Then there are the practical issues to be decided. Is the college located close enough to an airport? Is it too far from home; too close to home; or just right? For many students, the most important question they can answer concerns the college’s atmosphere – large or small campus; rural or urban; socially conservative or … “socially active.” Parents might want to weigh in on this decision, also. After all, chances are they’ll be the ones writing the checks.

Finally, it makes good practical sense to examine a college’s placement record. Check to see which aviation companies have hired graduates. Do they actively recruit on campus? Ask to speak with graduates who have found success in the field (you wouldn’t expect them to direct you to unsatisfied “customers,” would you?). Ask these recent graduates for tips on how to take best advantage of your college experience.

One of the top sources of information on aviation colleges is the University Aviation Association. Check it out at www.uaa.aero. And if you have the chance, plan to fly to your college visits in the family airplane.

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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