Most career pilots started their fascination with aviation at a young age. I remember my first flight in an airliner at age 13...I was hooked instantly. I don't think there was anything that anyone could have said that would have deterred me from pursuing my dream.
College was not an option for me, it was the expectation. All my friends were planning to go to college as well, so I never gave much thought to any other options of pursuing my dream job.
There were only a handful of universities that offered a Bachelor's Degree program in Professional Flight, but I settled on Purdue as soon as I received my acceptance letter. It was a big university, my dad was an alumnus, and they even had an airport right on campus.
I made some of the best memories of my life at Purdue. I was flying the first week on campus, pursuing my passions, and built strong friendships along the way...but it cost me. Luckily, I received a lot of help from family, but I also wanted skin in the game. Out of state tuition plus flight school meant a hefty price tag.
I graduated Purdue in 2009 with over $100,000 in student loans. Ouch.
I don't regret going to Purdue, but I wish I would have understood the financial impact of my decisions first. Decisions that I am paying for now, and will continue to pay for many years to come. The worst part is, I'm not even flying professionally. I'm not even flying, period!
If I had to do it all over again, would I have done things a bit differently? Absolutely. There are many pilots who graduate from 4-year degree programs with much less debt than I did.
Aspiring pilots face a different set of circumstances today than when I graduated in 2009. Times have changed enough to make me question whether a 4-year degree in aviation is worth the high expense.
College tuition is rising at an alarming rate. Experts estimate college tuition to rise an average of 6-8% per year. If you want to pursue a Bachelor's degree in any field, not just aviation, the costs are skyrocketing.
Student debt is virtually a given for most, if not all, college grads. On top of the cost of flight school, you will pay great expenses to take many other classes to become a more "well rounded" student.
In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration released a statement explaining changes to the requirements a First Officer (co-pilot) needs to meet in order to fly for a commercial airline.
Most graduates from a collegiate flight program will start their career with a regional airline. If you've flown on United Express or Delta Connection, it was most likely operated by a regional airline. When I was leaving Purdue in 2009, these airlines would hire graduates from college flight programs who had at least 250 hours of flight time. Since most graduates have somewhere between 225-300 hours, this usually was not a problem.
With the most recent changes announced by the FAA, the hour requirement is now 1500 hours to be hired as a First Officer with a regional airline, or 1000 hours if you hold a Bachelor's Degree in an aviation related field.
Now, I don't know many college grads leaving school with 1000 hours of flight time. This means graduates will need to build hours by taking jobs in the military or low paying jobs as flight instructors. With all the student debt from flight school and a college degree, and a starting salary below $20,000 a year, parents should make sure they keep their kid's rooms just as they left them.
The value of a college degree, in general, has been a hot topic lately. The documentary "Ivory Tower" is a good watch if you're looking for more thoughts on the subject.
It's hard to argue with the fact that college flight programs today are providing world-class education and experience to this country's future aviators. Most schools have professors who are also industry experts and the latest in aviation technology. Is that experience worth the hefty price tag? Are there alternatives?
My advice to anyone planning to pursue a 4-year college degree in aviation: plan to pick up a minor or second major in a non-flying related field. I know many of my classmates picked up an easy minor in either Airport or Airline Management.
Most pilots, me included, feel that they are invincible. That ego can make you a better pilot, but it only takes one bad medical exam or checkride to put an immediate stop to your flying. It's a great strategy to have non-flying related education or experience you can fall back on.
Do Your Research
Ultimately, anyone who is pursuing a career in aviation needs to do plenty of research. Not only should you research the best education options for you, it's important to really understand the costs of each option.
If you have to take out student loans for school, determine your expected monthly payment after you graduate. If your education is going to cost you $120,000 and you will need to flight instruct for a few more years after graduation in order to build your hours, ask yourself if you are OK making $600-700 monthly payments on your loans while only making $1200 a month as a flight instructor.
Find ways to keep your college costs low by taking classes at a community college for a year or two while you pursue flight training at a local flight school. Look for as many scholarship opportunities as you can. Try to pick up some part-time work to have spending money for food and clothing at school. Go to an in-state school if one is available. Graduating with less debt means you can start your career in aviation in a more comfortable financial position.
Do you feel college is the right choice for aspiring pilots? Do you worry the higher flight time requirements will create a pilot shortage? Leave your comments, questions, or concerns below!