Aviation College: A Better Choice Than Ever

A specialized education in aviation is a smart move.

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It’s an annual rite of passage for millions of high school seniors: anxiously checking their mailboxes for thick envelopes and weighing their options about where to go to college. For that special breed of student who couldn’t imagine anything less than a career in aviation, the choices become somewhat clearer. If your goal is to become an aviation professional — whether you aspire to be a pilot, an air traffic controller, airport manager, unmanned aerial vehicle operator or something else — enrolling at an aviation college could be your surest ticket to that dream job.

If you’re a young person contemplating your career choices (or if you have kids who’ve reached that age) you’ve probably received plenty of advice about how to crack the civilian aviation job market. If your aim is to become a professional pilot, one of the traditional paths is to sign up for flying lessons at a local flight school. That leaves you free to pursue a degree in something completely outside of aviation — say, computer science or international finance — giving you a fallback education should you one day lose your medical or wind up the victim of an airline furlough. There’s certainly wisdom in that suggestion, but it might not be the best choice for long-term success for every pilot.

If your objective is to land a job flying for a major airline, it’s important to understand that the rules of the game have changed in favor of getting an aviation degree. You’ve probably heard that the FAA has increased the minimum requirements needed to land that first airline job. As of August 2013, airline first officers must hold an ATP certificate versus a commercial ticket. The requirements to obtain an ATP have changed as well — and if you graduate from an accredited aviation college or learn to fly in the military, you have a leg up on other aspiring pilots.

For a standard ATP allowing you to apply for a job with a regional or major airline, you must have logged 1,500 flight hours and be at least 23 years old, the same as before. What’s changed is the creation of a new “restricted” category of ATP license that allows you to fly as an airline first officer with fewer hours and at age 21. Earning a four-year degree from an approved aviation college lets you obtain an R-ATP license with just 1,000 hours. Learning to fly in the military drops the requirement to 750. And if you earn an associate degree from an accredited aviation college, you’ll need 1,250 hours for the R-ATP.

Still, because the new ATP rule is so new, very few colleges have received approval from the FAA to offer the reduced hourly requirements. The good news for college-bound students coming up through the ranks, as well as recent grads, is that the FAA has agreed to approve degrees earned by some aviation college graduates for five years. That gives colleges and universities time to submit their degrees for approval without generating winners and losers who fall on either side of an arbitrary date.

Career Goals

For the right type of person, pursuing an aviation degree can offer the surest path to a long and rewarding career — and quite possibly make you a better professional pilot. The opportunity to become 100 percent immersed in aviation subjects is another strong factor for college students who choose an aviation program over other degree paths. For instance, even if you like numbers, getting an accounting degree when what you really want to do is fly jets can be counterproductive.

Enrolling in a college flight program immerses aspiring pilots in their chosen field, where they learn alongside other passionate young aviators.|

“As an incoming freshman at an aviation college, you’ll be totally engrossed in aviation from the moment you step on campus,” said Craig Smith, a senior at Western Michigan University, who has his sights set on a career as a corporate pilot. “You’ll get to know fellow aviation students very well as you eat, breathe and sleep aviation together day in and day out. For most of the aviation students here, that’s exactly the environment they were looking for.”

Smith’s experience as a student at a four-year aviation college is fairly typical of most undergrads on a professional pilot career track. He spends most of his time in class, studying, flying and working, with ground school, simulator sessions and a full-time course load occupying the majority of his waking hours. By their junior or senior year of college, many flight students also begin instructing part time at their schools. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the nation’s largest aviation college with main campuses in Florida and Arizona, will even pay the cost for you to earn a Master of Business Administration while you build time and make a little money on the side as a flight instructor.

The University of North Dakota invests heavily in cutting-edge ATC Simulators.|

Smith is also actively involved in Alpha Eta Rho, the international aviation fraternity. Founded in 1929, it’s the world’s oldest aviation fraternity, with more than 60 active chapters and more than 50,000 alumni worldwide. The coed professional organization has undergone a resurgence in recent years, as students and fraternity leaders have expanded Alpha Eta Rho and sought to improve all facets of the organization. The group holds annual events around the country and partners with groups, such as the Boy Scouts, to get young people interested in aviation. Probably the best aspect of joining the fraternity is the opportunity for networking. Alpha Eta Rho even provides members with mentoring from among its professional pilot alumni ranks.

What It Costs

There are substantially less expensive ways to learn to fly, and for many would-be professional pilots, college life is not part of the plan. For many learners, nondegree flight schools are a great deal and fit their personal and professional development goals better than a university program would.

Today, however, the value of a degree program is better than ever. Frank Ayers, chancellor of Embry-Riddle’s Prescott, Arizona, campus, says that in addition to the benefit of needing only 1,000 hours for the R-ATP license to fly for the airlines, many Embry-Riddle students also receive scholarships. They can anticipate top-quality flight instruction in modern, glass-equipped airplanes as they earn a degree that reinforces the education and practical skills needed for flying jets. Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach campus in Florida, for instance, is the only one in the country with a full-motion level-D Bombardier CRJ200 flight simulator for students. You’re not likely to gain that kind of exposure earning a degree in something outside of aviation.

“I look at it this way,” Ayers says. “If you’re going to be a surgeon, is it better to get a business degree or a degree in the area you plan to specialize in? Earning an aviation degree, you don’t just learn to fly, you learn a safety culture and are imprinted with that culture. It becomes a part of your life, as you are taught from day one to be a professional pilot, with an emphasis on the word professional.”

Embry-Riddle students we talked to said flight training at the university will cost them between $65,000 and $95,000 for a wallet full of pilot licenses through their commercial multi and CFI-I. The tuition costs for the top aviation schools, meanwhile, are on par with out-of-state costs at other competitive universities around the country.

But there are reasons why you might not want to attend an aviation college. The all-in cost to learn to fly through a college-training program will almost always be higher than at a Part 61 flight school. Training with a large Part 141 school will set you back roughly the same as the cost at many colleges, but at the flight school you can probably pick up your ratings faster. For some students, an aviation-specific degree, which often can equate to a more rigid, strictly by-the-numbers approach, might not match their particular learning style. And keep in mind that the airlines don’t really care if your degree is in aviation, and so again, pursuing a degree in some other field could serve you better.

Aviation universities like Embry-Riddle pride themselves on offering the latest technology, including glass cockpits and electronic charts.|

As with nondegree aviation programs at nonuniversity affiliated schools, there is the opportunity to stay on as a flight instructor after graduating. Arizona State University even offers former students the chance to instruct at locations around the country by virtue of its exclusive relationship with ATP, one of the country’s largest Part 141 flight schools, with 35 training locations from coast to coast. That gives ASU grads some intriguing choices for where they can go to instruct after graduating, as ATP offers students jobs anywhere it has openings. American Flyers, another national flight school, has a similar relationship with Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

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Choices, Choices

Deciding which aviation college to attend is as much about what you hope to gain from the experience as it is about earning a degree. With more than 150 colleges and universities across the country offering some sort of aviation degree program — many of them online — your choices abound. These range from dedicated aviation schools like Embry-Riddle (with campuses in warm, good-weather climates) to small community colleges and liberal arts schools to some of the country’s biggest universities.

Christine Zavodnik, a senior at The Ohio State University who will graduate this spring with an aviation degree through the College of Engineering, said learning to fly was on the top of her list of priorities, but she also sought the big-school experience so many crave. “It’s great having the little aviation world here on campus and then being able to leave that and be a part of bigger things at OSU,” she says.

To hone their skills, LeTourneau University students learn in Citabria taildraggers.|

While most aviation colleges have upgraded their fleets with the latest Garmin glass-equipped models, some schools maintain older fleets. Ohio State, for example, has a mix of Cessna 152s, 172s, Piper Arrows, a Cessna 310 and a Cirrus SR20. This helps keep training costs lower than those at schools with all brand-new airplanes. The obvious trade-off is a lack of experience with the newest cockpit technology — though some students argue they would rather learn to fly behind conventional six-pack instruments before moving on to glass.

LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, takes that concept one step further by offering initial pilot training in a fleet consisting exclusively of Citabria taildraggers purchased new from American Champion Aircraft Corp. Not only are training costs lower in the bare-bones Citabrias, the school has also noticed an improvement in the flying skills of its students, says Lauren Bitikofer, chairman of the university’s flight sciences department.

“We’re extremely pleased with the stick-and-rudder skills of our pilots who learned to fly in the Citabrias,” he says. Starting its students in taildraggers before moving them to G1000 Cessna 172s after they earn their private turned out to be a great decision, Bitikofer says. Every new student who comes to the school learns to fly in taildraggers, as opposed to the school’s previously offered option of learning to fly in the Citabria or 172.

LeTourneau is the only aviation college in the country that has switched to an all-taildragger fleet for primary fight instruction, though several schools offer taildragger flight training, including aerobatics at many colleges, a number of which have their own aerobatic teams that compete against each other for the Collegiate National Championship through the International Aerobatic Club. Students can also show off their talents at the annual National Intercollegiate Flying Association Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference, better known as Safecon. The competition brings more than 300 students from 30 colleges and universities from across the country together to vie for team and pilot honors in spot landing, target drop and other categories.

Another unusual aspect of the flight training program at LeTourneau, a Christian college, is its bush pilot school. Cameron Laramee, a sophomore who is working toward his commercial license in the Skyhawk, will soon transition into a Cessna 206 and start his bush pilot training as part of a career path that includes aspirations to fly for a Christian mission in Africa. “When I visited LeTourneau, I fell in love with the school,” Laramee said. “There was nowhere else I wanted to go. The fact that I could learn in a taildragger, move into a glass-panel airplane and then transition to bush flying made the choice easy.”

NonFlying Degrees

Of course, becoming a professional pilot isn’t the only reason to consider attending an aviation college. The University of North Dakota, one of the country’s biggest and best-known aviation schools, offers seven four-year aviation degree options, including a highly rated air traffic controller degree program and one of the country’s first majors in unmanned aerial systems. The school has 1,300 students in its aviation undergrad, master’s and doctoral programs, along with 117 aircraft, making it one of the largest aviation universities in the nation.

About half of UND Aerospace’s current students aspire to become airline pilots, says Don Dubuque, director of extension programs at the school. But a growing number are looking for careers outside the cockpit. And for good reason. Dubuque says that drone operators who graduate from UND’s UAS program can expect to earn $60,000 to $75,000 per year right out of school versus a fraction of that for flight instructors and greenhorn regional airline first officers. Overseas deployments for unmanned aerial vehicle operators can boost pay to $120,000 to $150,000, levels airline pilots see only after many years in the business.

“The demand for UAS operators is quite strong, and the pay reflects that,” Dubuque says. All unmanned aircraft students also learn to fly in real airplanes, he says, and they are encouraged to go on to earn their CFI. “It makes them all the more marketable to companies seeking well-rounded individuals.”

Senior Christine Zavodnik says she picked Ohio State University for its top-quality flight training combined with the once-in-a-lifetime chance to go to a big school.|

UND Aerospace has also made a huge investment in ATC technology with a highly regarded degree program that makes extensive use of tower, approach and center simulators, including a state-of-the-art 360-degree tower simulator. The school is also one of the few colleges that offers helicopter flight instruction. Somewhat surprisingly, the challenging weather in North Dakota that prevails throughout much of the regular academic year is also a draw for students who relish the opportunity to learn in the sort of real-world environment they’ll likely experience once they start flying for a living.

Of course, students who attend schools like the Florida Institute of Technology and Embry-Riddle can argue that they’re afforded many more good-weather days that translate into fewer flight cancellations — the bane of student pilots everywhere. But if you don’t mind the cold and are one of those who seeks out challenging weather, another great choice is Utah Valley University, which has amassed an all-Diamond fleet of DA40 singles and DA42 twins at its campus in Provo and offers a professional pilot Bachelor of Science degree program that ranks among the best in the country.

There are so many good aviation colleges offering so many excellent degree programs that choosing the one that's right for you probably isn't any easier than the decisions other prospective college students face. For a full list of accredited aviation colleges and universities, visit flyingmag.com/college. That will at least get you started in your search. If your goal is to learn to fly, attending an aviation college will get you behind the controls of some fantastic airplanes as you interact with enthusiastic instructors and other passionate young aviators, all while living your dream of learning the art and science of becoming a well-trained pro. For those of you just embarking on that path, we offer you the best of luck, as well as some simple but sage advice: Have fun up there!

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