FAPA.aero | Choosing an Aviation College
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Future Pilots

Choosing an Aviation College

Robert P. Mark

Building a Foundation

If you’ve been wondering whether a college degree is necessary to pursue an aviation career, the simple answer is yes. Let’s look at the particulars though of why a degree is so important when measured against choosing the subject focus and the school itself.

Traditionally, an aviation education focuses on the technical side of pilot academic life, as in logging flight time and earning new certificates. While that’s a critical component of an aviation education, it’s not the only requirement for a cockpit job. The question is how to compete with other pilots for a job when you all know how to fly airplanes. There must be something in addition to just technical training.

One of the big qualifiers is a college degree. Over 93% of major airline applicants have a four-year Bachelor’s degree. Many, in fact, have advanced degrees in subjects like law, medicine or other disciplines completely unrelated to aviation. Completing at least a four-year degree can indicate a candidate’s ability to commit to and complete a goal. Under the new ATP regulations there may also be a distinct advantage to a four-year aviation related degree as that relates to holding a Restricted ATP certificate.

Still, there are a small percentage of applicants who arrive at an airline armed with flying credentials, but with little or no college experience. In all likelihood, these pilots chose the direct path to begin an aviation career, hoping to combine youth with seniority. This combination paid handsome dividends in the past when airlines were prosperous and stable. The person on the property earlier than everyone else wound up at the top of the seniority list.

Another direction some aviation students have chosen is the gap year between high school and college, spending that time earning the necessary pilot certificates. Starting college with Commercial and Certificated Flight Instructor (CFI) certificates allows a student to build flight time (and earn income) while in school, thus graduating with experience that could make them a more competitive applicant.

We’d be remiss here if we failed to mention another value to a college degree that often goes unmentioned. Aviation is a dynamic and volatile industry that challenges even those who are well prepared. Economic downturns can force pilots to seek gainful employment outside of their chosen profession, while unexpected medical issues can delay or derail the ability to earn a living on the flight deck. Possession of a college degree prepares a pilot for these all-too real possibilities. In other words, limited college experience translates into limited opportunities.

What Should You Study?

The answer to this question is highly subjective. The best advice says study a topic that interests you. Imagine for a moment you were told becoming a professional pilot simply was no longer an option. What else have you been interested in over the years? Thinking this way doesn’t mean not becoming a pilot of course, only that you now have a wildcard of sorts in your back pocket, just in case. Think of it like adding that alternate to an IFR flight plan, just in case the day, or your career don’t move along as planned. However, let’s not forget that spending four years in college is neither easy nor inexpensive. But it is valuable in the long run because you’re also developing a competitive edge for yourself as the future aviator.


If aviation is your passion, it makes sense to attend a school offering a degree in aviation science. This is a good time to go to the FAPA.aero Professional Pilot Degree Institutions listing to learn how these schools integrate academics with flight training activities. With seemingly limitless options, choosing a college can be a daunting task but, with a bit of forethought, you can refine your search by identifying and listing your priorities.

A few items to consider:

  • "Courses of study (major, minor)
  • Integrated flying certification
  • Geographic location
  • Cost
  • Financial aid
  • Job placement assistance (summers and post graduation)
  • Advanced degrees
  • Internship programs
  • Campus life
  • Specific courses aviation students may wish to pursue:

    • Professional Aviation
    • Aviation Science
    • Aviation Management
    • Integrated Flying Certification
    • FAA Certificates: Private pilot, Instrument rating, Commercial pilot, Multi Engine Rating, Certificated Flight Instructor (CFI),
    • Certificated Flight Instructor Instrument (CFII), Certificated Flight Instructor Multi-Engine (MEI), Airline Transport Pilot (ATP)
    • Other training specific to pilots:

      • Turbine transition courses, Second in Command courses (SIC), Type ratings.
      • Other issues to consider in school comparisons:

        • Four-season flying (i.e. North Dakota) – How much flight time can you log in January after a North Dakota blizzard?
        • Year round (one season) flying (i.e. Arizona) – Could you earn your certificates faster flying in AZ?
        • Weather flying (i.e. Florida) – About the only weather-flying opportunities are avoiding thunderstorms
        • High Density (metropolitan) areas (i.e. NY, Chicago, LA Basin) – You’ll certainly garner great experience with ATC in these regions
        • Study abroad (expensive, but limited for flying)
        • Cost and Financial Aid – Only accredited academic institutions can offer Federal student loans
        • Tuition (in and out of state) – This alone can be significant
        • Summer & post-grad Job Placement Assistance
        • Internships
        • Career counseling
        • Resume and interview preparation
        • Transportation needs (car, bus, train)
        • Extra-curricular activities
        • Military affiliation (ROTC)
        • We’ve tried to compare just a few topics here, from just a handful of schools. Many of them are quite fine, but realize there are positives and negatives to every school. Every recruiter wants you to attend their of course.

          One tip. No matter what, never agree to attend an academic institution until you’ve personally visited the campus. Sometimes, even the college with the best curriculum and the best financial aid may just not click for you once you visit. Better to learn how it all feels before you begin, than after. It’s important.

          Another is to keep in mind there’s a difference between a college with an aviation program and an aviation college itself. With the latter, you’ll receive more of an “immersion” into the world of aviation. There will usually be instructors with more diversified experiences and a greater variety of students with almost identical career goals. You will have the chance to interact with an entire campus full of people that most likely want very much the same thing as you, or that may already have experienced some of those things, an important point when it comes to networking.

          Larger institutions will normally offer more aviation focused extracurricular activities like Aeronautical Honor Societies, Flight Teams and chapters of Women in Aviation to name a few. Of course these advantages may only be available at institutions with heftier price tags.

          When deciding which is the right school for you, the final decision, no matter what, rests with you. Good research before you begin can save an awful lot of headaches later on. Listen carefully and take notes about the details, note the differences, the costs and the atmosphere, then follow your instinct.