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The Decision: Vocational School or College?

Part Two

by Tim Genc


One of the biggest objections/hurdles to overcome when it comes to earning your pilot certificates and ratings is paying for that training. Vocational aviation schools can charge anywhere from $60,000-$90,000 for the required training; college programs can be double – even triple – that amount. Again, Dr. Shukert weighed in on the aviation college path for this article:

"Although a popular and air carrier industry-recognized pilot career pathway, many potential pro-pilot program enrollees are deterred by universally high flight training degree component costs. When added to recurring tuition, books and supplies, lodging and transportation expenses, the IHL-focused pilot career route can be a non-starter for many cash-strapped students."

The first stop to consider is loans and, despite costing significantly more than the vocational school option, this is one area where the college route has a clear-cut advantage. It is much easier to secure a loan for a Title IV college or university than it is to get one for a vocational flight school. There are some aviation specific options out there for the flight schools, but they are much more difficult to get and will often come with higher interest rates and less flexible deferment options. The main options are available in the form of personal loans/lines of credit and the like.

Scholarships remain a widely untapped resource. There are thousands of dollars in scholarship funds that go unused every year. The FAPA website maintains a list of up-to-date scholarship offerings to make the process of searching for them as easy as possible. There aren’t many that will singularly cover the entire investment for one’s training, but a combination of several of these scholarships can do more than you think. Research all the scholarships available to you, some have very specific requirements, are for specific schools, or specific demographics, but others are open to anyone with an interest in aviation.

One last, more obscure option is the idea of a work-study arrangement. Under this plan, a candidate works at a flight school, FBO or college and the majority of their compensation is in the form of flight training. This route may take longer than that of someone who can get a loan and pursue their training full time, but the advantage of completing your training debt free certainly has appeal. The most popular version of this plan is the military. For more information on this route, please read our article titled The Decision: Military or Civilian which is posted on our website under the School Counselors, Future Pilots and Pilots in Training tabs.

On the topic of the military, if you do go this route, and regardless of whether your years of service were in aviation or not, you will come out of that commitment with VA benefits available to you for further education. A veteran can utilize their VA benefits to pay for either vocational flight training or college in pursuit of an aviation degree, but there are some things to keep in mind. If you plan to go the vocational school route, know that the VA will not pay for your Private Pilot training; this is viewed by the VA as a prerequisite for career pilot training. For the subsequent certificates, depending on whether you have the Montgomery or Post 911 GI Bill to use for training, a portion of your training will be covered. In some cases, you will need to front the money for the training and the VA will reimburse you based on the minimum program cost for that training. If you go the college route, the VA will pay for the majority – if not all – of the cost of your education and training at any publicly supported schools. Additional cost-cutting opportunities, such as the Yellow Ribbon program, can also help in offsetting the associated expenses.

Time Frame

As previously mentioned, seniority is one of the biggest factors that will determine your quality of life, schedule, and compensation in the world of professional aviation. So, the quicker someone can get trained, the sooner they can start building their post-training flight time toward an aviation company’s hiring minimums. The quicker they can get those hours, the sooner they get hired and get a seniority number. The quicker they can get a seniority number and start working, the sooner they can upgrade to Captain, get a major bump in pay, and be that much closer to being able to move on the bigger, faster and more financially rewarding opportunities with major airlines or other carriers.

One of the questions to ask yourself when deciding between the vocational school or college/university route is, “How quickly will I complete my training and be able to move on to the next part of my journey?” This is where you have to start weighing other factors. On one hand, the vocational school route will almost always be quicker, but you will have to build more time to reach ATP minimums, and financing might be more of a challenge. On the other hand, if the college route is going to give you the same credentials in four years as the vocational school will in 6 months, what else are they teaching you? The answer is, a lot! The education you will receive at a four-year aviation school goes above and beyond the basics. You will have to take weather classes, aviation human factors classes, systems classes, likely earn some high-end simulator/flight training device hours, general education class requirements, and have much more classroom time to study and learn concepts. Can you earn this type of education outside the college classroom? Yes, but it is likely on your own and at an additional expense to the normal cost of training at the flight school.

Whether you take six months or four years to complete your Private, Instrument, Commercial, Multi-engine and Flight Instructor certificates and ratings, you will likely do so in the same amount of hours. You will then need to build the balance of hours needed for your ATP certificate prior to making application to a most companies. Again, some reasonable math suggests that the quickest route will be the vocational flight school. That said, a more thorough route might be the college avenue. Which is more important to you? What are you able to more easily commit?

The more you research flight training, the more information you will find, and the harder the decision will be; the sheer volume of possibilities and options can be daunting! Take your time to analyze the data, and consider talking to one of FAPA’s Pilot Career Advisors to help sort through and make sense of it all; our advisors have “been there and done that” and will help guide you to make the choice that is right for you. Always remember that you cannot make a wrong decision when it comes to the path you choose to get your pilot training. No matter what route you choose, you will be able to earn the certificates or ratings you need to have a successful aviation career. Some take longer, some cost more, some require you to work harder, but they will all get you to the same place. Do your research, list the pros and cons, and make the best decision you can with the information available.

Good luck!

Bio: FAPA.aero