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Flight School vs. College or University.

Want to be a Pilot? Lesson #1: A Straight Line is the Shortest Path

One of the most confusing aviation myths that is perpetuated online is that a pilot needs a four-year college degree in order to move from the regional airlines to the major airlines. This is simply not true. You don't need that four-year degree to fly for the major airlines.

While there is nothing wrong with obtaining a college degree, if you want to become a commercial airline pilot and know for sure that this is your life's path, then you will be wasting time and money going to a private or community college that offers a flight program along with a four-year Bachelor's Degree instead of choosing a Part 141 accredited flight school. We'll compare and explain why a BA is not necessary for a career as a pilot.

We say in our travels:

"One of the most compelling comparisons between Academy of Aviation and a four-year college is the time/money factor. Unlike a full-time college commitment, we get you into the air for the full duration of your training. If you've got your heart set on a career as an airline pilot, our career-oriented programs will put you on a direct course to your goal in much less time, and for less money."

We do not say that lightly, or say that to “get you in the door.” We say that because there is a difference between sitting in a classroom at a community college and sitting in a classroom at an established flight school. You do NOT need a four-year degree to become a professional commercial pilot working for the major airlines. Read on for considerations about private accredited Part 141 flight schools vs. the college/university pathway.

Costs Less Money, Takes Less Time states:
"While a college degree is not always required to get started in this career field, the BLS reports that airline pilots are required to have a bachelor's degree, which can be in any major. However, aspiring pilots can gain more relevant knowledge by enrolling in an aviation or aeronautics bachelor's program. Regardless of major, students must complete coursework in physics, aeronautical engineering, mathematics, and English. It's important to enroll in an aviation or aeronautics program that has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)."

The fact is, students will learn all of the proper skills and concepts mentioned above- but the difference is that at a flight school, these concepts are taught without the student worrying about other classes in the major that they chose to study concurrent to their flight training. This does two things- it gives the flight student a single-minded approach to flight training, which in our opinion is the optimal way to learn a craft, and it also costs less money and takes less time, because you can typically become a professional pilot in two years for literally half of the money as a college degree, and you can start earning money as a pilot much sooner than if you're in a four-year program. also says:

"While in school, consider joining a student club. Membership in a student club, such as the Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA) ACE club, can help you form networking connections, learn more about the industry, and find jobs after graduation."

We agree; joining groups like those mentioned as well as networking with partnered airlines from your chosen flight school is a great way to immerse yourself in the business, but you do not have to be in college to join any of these organizations. Moreover, the flight student will have access to any of the outside clubs or groups that pilots will want to become a part of, whether you go to a college or a flight school. Flight schools are also in the position to offer a graduating student a CFI job, and a path to a partnered regional airline, just like colleges.

The “Real” World

AOPA says:

"4. The college experience. Can you see yourself at this school? Are you ready to embrace wearing a uniform while you fly, or do you prefer something less regimented? Also take into consideration what you want out of your college experience—i.e., whether collegiate sports and outside interests will be important along with the flying component."

Flight schools do not offer sports programs and all of the other tangents of university life. But, is that what you want? Can you join a local sports team that won't cost you college tuition? Can you make the same kinds of relationships and connections at a private flight school as in a college? The flight school student can get the benefit of living in the “real world” instead of getting sucked into a college lifestyle that has routinely shown to be an ingenuine and misleading entrance into the “real” world.

The Same Benefits and FAA Oversight as a College states:

"The second regulatory construct, 14 CFR Part 141, is an optional set of regulations that serve as the framework for FAA-approved training schools. Part 141 flight training organizations must obtain and maintain an FAA certification, which in part requires an approved flight training curriculum. Training provided under Part 141 is generally considered higher quality due to its additional structure and increased FAA oversight as compared to Part 61. Some flight schools conduct training under Part 61 in a manner structured similarly to Part 141 but without FAA certification and oversight. While Part 61 training and Part 141 training result in the same certificates and ratings, the added structure of 141 can better prepare the student for a training environment similar to the training environment at an airline.

Likewise, the training provided by a college or university is generally considered higher quality training because the institution submits to an accreditation process designed specifically to measure the quality of its professional pilot programs. In addition, if the college or university qualifies as an institution of higher education as outlined in 14 CFR Part 61.160, the training is considered to be of an even higher quality, which benefits the pilot after training is complete."

While the above paragraphs certainly are true, attending a private and accredited Part 141 flight school will have exactly the same benefits and FAA oversight as a college or university. The FAA may even look at a private school with a stricter eye, as a university is looked upon as more established than a private school because that's just the nature of a university over a private school-- but the fact is, the requirements and oversight is the same. The accredited 141 private school, which usually has smaller classes and more personal instruction, is also looked at as having more to prove as a serious learning environment-- teaching flying, safety, and all of the mechanics of being a pilot-- because it is, by definition, competing with the larger colleges. We believe that, as a private school where people choose to attend, there is also a pride and a personal approach that a college will lack.

The Same Guaranteed Pathway to the Majors at a Lower Cost says:

"As a big supporter of the collegiate system's pathway to the R-ATP certificate, the RAA has determined that the No. 1 thing students are interested in is having certainty in their careers. “They want a clear flow-through path from the school to the regional airlines, where they have a guaranteed interview or hiring, and continued flow from the regionals to the major airlines. Because we know these pilots dream of flying the heavy metal,” Black said.

Still, as pay at the regionals increases, the cost to earn a collegiate degree and amass the required hours for an R-ATP certificate remains high. For instance, Embry-Riddle says that while costs do vary, its four-year aeronautical science degree program costs about $44,000 per year for tuition, room and board, books, and fees. The school recommends students budget an additional $20,000 per year for flight training, equaling a total of approximately $64,000 per year. That's about $256,000 to earn the degree, with some of those costs offset when students are hired by the school as instructor pilots in their senior year as they build hours toward that magic 1,000-hour tally."

There are two messages here. The first focuses on the dream to fly and the pathway to the airlines and the collegiate promise of a guaranteed interview and pathway to the regionals. This is also true of the private Part 141 flight school that has regional partnerships. There is a guaranteed interview for a CFI job for graduating students of a private flight school, and a guaranteed pathway to the regionals from a private flight school, exactly the same as from a college. It is only up to the students' performance and dedication that will make or break an interview-- from both the college or the private flight school. But, as the second message illustrates, at a significantly lower cost and lesser time for a private school than the college or university.

Similar Pros and Cons

Pilot blogger Swayne Martin compares pros and cons of the collegiate path: 1. The Aviation Universities: Many colleges in the USA have aviation and aerospace programs. Three examples of well known universities in the United States which either centralize on aviation, or have highly reputable aviation programs are: Embry Riddle (ERAU),Purdue, and the University of North Dakota (NDU).

A like-minded student body, sharing the same passion
A structured learning environment, students working together
High acceptance rates
Reduced hiring minimums (from 1,500 hours to 1,000 hours as of August, 2013)
A degree in a field you're interested in Aviation-related minors (ATC, Aviation Management, etc)
Alumni and Student Networking
Airline quick-start programs, only available to students from these schools
Instructing jobs (through the schools) offered to students and alumni
Learn and fly on “top of the line” prop and jet simulators
Take advantage of diverse, well maintained fleets of aircraft with glass cockpits
(ERAU): two locations to choose from: Prescott, Arizona and Daytona Beach, Florida

Expensive, expensive, oh yeah, and expensive
Low paying career (early on) — hard to pay off school debt
Degree in Aeronautical Science isn't great for much else, besides being a pilot
Too much aviation? It's something that you'll be constantly surrounded by… If you consider this as an option, you probably shouldn't be thinking about an aviation university anyways
Group setting: everyone else is like you, a pilot, you're no longer unique.
Fact: every single “pro” on the above list should also be available at a Part 141 private flight school that is worth their flight-training money, less the BA degree and differing locations (a small plug: AOA has a new location in North Carolina near Charlotte, and we will be expanding to Florida soon, for students who want flight training outside of the NYC area.) There are cons with private schools as well which parallel the cons above, as with any form of education, but the fact is, it will cost you a lot less money and take less time at a private school.

Funding Options Available Today

According to

"To help open the doors for would-be pilots, Bob Rockmaker, president of the Flight School Association of North America, said his group is working to form an accrediting body that would allow federal loans to flow to students at some 50 to 100 freestanding schools. Flight schools not connected to higher-education institutions could then offer their students funding options. The process will take another year or so, he said."

That is definitely happening right now and there are funding options available today, before the federal funding option is available. This opens the door to students who would otherwise be shut out because of up-front costs.

The Reality of Ability remarks about universities: "A common question asked by prospective pilots is whether or not they should invest a lot of money to obtain an aviation-related degree from a top university flight school, or spend less for flight training obtained at a local flight school.

Aviation universities are a popular option for people who want to fly and also want a four-year degree. While it might make sense to kill two birds with one stone, a degree in aviation limits you to strictly an aviation-related career. On the other hand, obtaining an MBA while flying at the local airport might be the less expensive and more versatile option.

The decision to attend an aviation university is a big one. Aviation universities can be very beneficial when it comes to learning, networking, and ultimately getting a job as a pilot. But they're costly, and many people recommend a backup plan in case you're grounded in the future. If you have the financial resources and/or can get a scholarship for a university, it becomes a more viable, and good, option to consider."

They also write an exhausting list of “The Pros and Cons of Attending an Aviation University.” The reality is, those pros are exactly the same as a local flight school.

Everything outlined above is setting the stage to what we are ultimately here to say: that a pilot does not need a four-year college degree in order to move from regional airlines to the majors. What does the pilot need to move into the majors? Practical flying experience. The exact same experience you get in the air and in your ground school training will be gained from both types of schooling. American Airlines does not care if you hold degree saying that you majored in art history or sociology. They care about your safety record in the air, your relevant hours in the cockpit, your ability to fly and land in all weather conditions and your track record of problem solving while holding the controls.

They All Landed Interviews states:

"Regional airlines in the United States do not require pilots to have a four year college degree. However, the major United States airlines do require that pilots have a four year degree. Since the major airlines pay much better than the regional airlines, it is advisable for prospective pilots to obtain a four year college degree. These major airlines are looking for pilots with Bachelor of Science degrees with a focus on aviation.

Yet if a pilot's undergraduate course of study is not aviation related, he will not be immediately ruled out of consideration for an open pilot position. Even if a pilot isn't looking for work with a major airline, a college degree will help him land interviews with smaller airlines. The degree presents him as a serious candidate for open pilot positions as it indicates that he has the ability to think critically and complete the airline's unique education program.

Major airlines are looking for more than the qualifications listed above. Major airlines favor pilots who have 3,000 hours or more of flight time with half of these hours spent in a multi-engine aircraft. They also desire a minimum of 1,000 hours as a pilot in command of a jet (turbine) powered airplane. Captains and First Officers will need an airline transport pilot license. To obtain this license, the candidate will have to be 23 years old or older. He'll also have to have flown a minimum of 1,500 hours, some of which has to be “instrument flying”. A certain percentage of these hours must be completed at night. Finally, he'll have to pass a written flight exam that is administered by the FAA and also pass a psychological / aptitude test."

The statements above about the four-year degrees are false. We, and many other private flight schools, have trained many students that have nothing that remotely resembles a four-year degree from a university and who are now flying with the majors. They all landed interviews, were serious candidates and used critical thinking. Most any flight school will have that experience. Yet the myth of the necessary four-year degree to fly for the majors perpetuates via websites and blog posts, and students are lured into spending huge amounts of money to live an unnecessary college lifestyle to attain a goal that they already know they want - but with the added cloud of a full college tuition burden and two years of wasted time.

The statements above about what the majors want are unwaveringly true. But every single facet of that paragraph can be attributed to experience attained in a private flight school and achieved by the flight student-- without the four-year degree.

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