Is a College Degree Necessary for a Pilot?

College StudiesIf you follow the national news with any regularity, you’ve probably heard a handful of recent stories about out-of-control student debt. As post-secondary tuition costs seemingly spiral out of control, many students are left wondering when, if ever, they’ll be able to claw their way out from under the mountain of education bills. For those of you who dream of professional pilot careers, you might wonder if pursuing a college degree is a necessary part of the process.

Spending a Fortune

Unless you’re extremely fortunate, you’ll either be spending, or have already spent, a significant amount of money on your pilot certificates & ratings. Even if you take great pains to keep your training as economical as possible, you can still expect to shell out several thousands of dollars to even begin to approach pilot hiring requirements. With so much invested in your flight training, does it make sense to add to the financial outlay by taking on a pricey college education too?

Overkill for the Jet Set?

For those of you who’ve already earned several certificates & ratings, could you guess as to how much time you spent hitting the books during flight training? How many hours do you think you’ve invested preparing for all your FAA written exams and for the oral portion of each checkride? How frequently do you peruse the FARs, internet, and your aviation books to stay fresh on relevant topics? If your training was anything like mine, you might feel you’ve already spent the equivalent of four years just learning the stuff you need to be a pilot. Isn’t that good enough?

Now think about how a professional aviation career will play out. Can’t you expect to undergo training for each new model of aircraft you fly? Aren’t pro pilots subject to proficiency checks, recurrent flight training, FAA type rides, and a host of other scrutiny? Isn’t the first thing every airline does with new hires is stick them in a classroom for weeks on end (on the company’s nickel)? Won’t this on-the-job training and the industry’s continuing education requirements be more than enough for you to excel as a pilot? In this industry, is it possible that college is overkill?

Numbers and Stats

Regardless of our personal opinions on the value of college for pilots, it’s the industry’s expectations and standards that will determine whether or not college is a necessary investment. With this in mind, I spent a few minutes this morning perusing the websites of a handful of the nation’s airlines. Specifically, I was looking at their pilot hiring requirements. With regards to education, can you guess what I found? Delta and FedEx both specify that applicants should hold a Bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Southwest and ExpressJet echo this requirement but throw in the word preferred. Of the five sites I visited, only SkyWest doesn’t specifically mention educational requirements. In democracy, majority rules; so you can see that a 4-year degree is more or less a necessity to get on with the big boys.

Digging Deeper

Following my web search, I dug out an old binder of AIR, Inc pilot job search materials. One section included a breakdown of stats for pilots hired between 6-1-04 and 5-31-05. Pilot ReadingWith regards to education, upwards of 90% of civilian hires held a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Applicants with a military background pushed this number to near 100%. The lowest of any listed group, the jet regionals, showed 67% of civilian new hires held a 4-year degree, while the remaining 33% had some lesser amount of college. Though these percentages have dipped from time to time, you can see that the airlines still place a high value on college education. AIR, Inc addressed the question by stating, “An incomplete educational record can overshadow a candidate’s many other accomplishments and qualifications.” To avoid becoming an overshadowed candidate, let’s explore some options for those of you who lack a college degree.

Part 91 and Part 135 Positions

If college isn’t feasible right now, it might be worth setting your sights on the private and corporate aviation arenas. These smaller operations are less likely to focus on your educational background, provided your aviation aptitude and experience are strong. In some cases, the equipment, pay, and schedule could be better than anything you would find at the airlines. For maximum efficiency, tap your network for help in securing a position.

Head Overseas

Anyone dead set on flying for a scheduled airline shouldn’t ignore the overseas market. While post-industrial nations will likely have similar standards as U.S. airlines, many up-and-coming countries will probably value your pilot experience, qualifications, and English ability. Several economies, particularly in Asia, are experiencing rapid growth in the demand for air transportation. Many such nations have a strong demand for pilots that is proving difficult to fill with local aviators. If you’re open to flying abroad, absence of a college degree is much less likely to hinder your advancement.


The 1,500 Hour Rule

Lately, talk in the US airline industry has focused on an impending double whammy. In August, new legislation is set to require all Part 121 pilots to have at least 1500 total flight hours. This increase in flight experience requirements is expected to significantly thin down the pilot hiring pool. On top of that, the Baby Boomer generation is rapidly running up on the Age 65 Rule, meaning experienced jet jockeys will be retiring in droves. With fewer qualified pilots coming in and significant numbers of airline pilots on their way out, it’s quite plausible the Part 121 carriers will be willing to overlook a lack of post-secondary schooling when considering job applicants.

Credit on the Side

If you’re currently flying but would like to one day move up to the majors, you should at least consider taking college classes on the side. Many degree options can now be completed entirely online, enabling you to schedule your study time around your work & family life. Besides furthering your education and enhancing your job qualifications, Studenttaking courses part time can help keep your college expenses manageable.

Tip: Even if you don’t want to major in aviation, take a look at schools that offer flight training programs. If you already hold your FAA certificates & ratings, several schools will award credit based on your credentials. This could be a very quick and cost-effective option for getting some college credits under your belt. It definitely won’t hurt your resume/application if you can add Professional Pilot Minor, Certificate in Commercial Aviation, etc to your qualifications while you work on your Bachelor’s. 

Finding a Way

Succeeding as a professional pilot without a degree is difficult, but it’s far from impossible. For the best shot at achieving the career you desire, look into some of the suggestions above to help you secure an office with a view. If possible, try to devote your efforts to obtaining a 4-year degree. Besides helping you reach the pinnacle of the aviation industry, your studies will provide you with valuable skills and knowledge  that last a lifetime.

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