Flight Training: The Pros and Cons of Aviation Universities

Is a University Flight Program Right for You?

Flight instructor showing student pilots flight deck of helicopter
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One of the most commonly asked questions from prospective pilots is whether or not they should invest big money for an aviation-related degree from a top-rated university flight school, or spend less money for flight training with a local flight school.

Aviation universities are a popular option for people who want a four-year degree and also want to fly. Why not kill two birds with one stone? On the other hand, a degree in aviation limits you to strictly an aviation-related career, whereas obtaining an MBA while flying at the local airport might be the less expensive and more versatile option.

 

Keep in mind that there are many ways to become an airline pilot; an aviation university is just one option.

Let’s weigh the pros and cons of an aviation university:

Pros:

  • Top-Notch Instruction: Aviation universities hire only the most qualified professors and instructors. These instructors are aviation experts. You’d likely have retired airline pilots, aviation mechanics and real, honest-to-goodness experts teaching you. Aviation is their specialty, and they tend to teach it well.
  • Strict Standards: Accredited universities have very high standards that they must meet or exceed. On top of the FAA’s standards for flight instruction, these schools have to meet their accreditation guidelines.
  • State of the Art Equipment: You’ll find the best airplanes and simulators at universities that specialize in aviation. The airplanes will probably be brand new, with the latest on-board technologies, like GPS and ADS-B installed. These aircraft will also be very well maintained. Most flight departments at universities take a very conservative approach to maintenance with frequent inspections.
  • Like-Minded Peers: One of the major benefits to a university flight program is that you are completely immersed in aviation. You will likely have roommates that understand flying, and these roommates are good for studying with, learning from and collaborating with during flight training. Studying for check rides is much easier when you have four or five or twenty other people to bounce questions off of.
  • Networking: The aviation industry is a relatively small one, and being at an aviation university will help you make contacts you’ll need to get a job. Professors, flight instructors, and fellow peers will all be immersed in aviation and many following career paths to the airlines. These people can be very important connections to have when it comes time to find a job.
  • Internships: The coveted airline internships are difficult to get, but the idea becomes more attainable if you’re attending an aviation university. Airline representatives like to scope out aviation universities for intern candidates. They usually offer interviews on campus for internships, an opportunity that you’d miss out on if you didn't attend an aviation university. Today’s internships are competitive, and it helps to have connections and a good aviation education if you want to intern with an airline.
  • Career Placement: Many airlines partner with aviation universities to offer graduates hiring preference, or at least a guaranteed interview. Some airlines even lower their requirements for pilots coming out of an aviation university, since they can assume that the student was very well trained in things like advanced flight operations, aerodynamics, air navigation, jet engines and meteorology.

    Cons:

    • Cost: By far, the most complained about topic involving aviation universities is the cost. Tuition can be anywhere from $30,000 to $130,000 per year, and this doesn't always include the cost of flying. Aircraft rental and instruction at a school like Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University or Purdue University can be very expensive. Many students come out of aviation universities with over $100,000 in debt and will probably fly for a regional airline for less than $27,000 per year.
    • No Back-Up Plan: While it’s a good thing to have goals and want to work toward them, it’s also a good thing to have a back-up plan. Getting a degree in flight will only help you if you do, actually, become employable as a pilot.

      Not only is it a tough industry as far as hiring goes, but what happens if you become disqualified or un-hirable at some point? This can happen if you are denied an aviation medical certificate, happen upon a felony or misdemeanor or just fail too many checkrides. It’s a risky business, and many people recommend spending your time and money on a more versatile degree, like business management, before they venture into aviation.

    • Less Flexible Schedule: Universities are getting better at accommodating non-traditional students, but the majority of aviation university students are still required to attend classes in person, during regular business hours. It’s not quite as flexible as flying at your local airport whenever you want to. At a university flight department, your schedule is put together by a scheduling department for you, and there may be fees if you can’t make it to a flight.
    • Strict Flying Rules: The university flight department and its insurance company will mandate the rules for flying, and they are usually extremely cautious. Instructors and management pilots are meticulous about details, which makes for a safe environment with no room for error. There are standards and procedures for everything, which can take some of the fun out of flying for some.

      The decision to attend an aviation university is a big one. Aviation universities can be very beneficial when it comes to learning, networking and getting a job as a pilot. But they’re costly and many people recommend a back-up 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 is a very good option to consider.