Do Pilots Need College?

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In my recent wanderings in the online aviation world, I came across this question in a few different places … if pilots are so scarce, why do airlines still require pilot applicants to have a four-year college degree? Especially since they often don’t seem to care what the degree is in … forestry or engineering or English lit all seem to equally make the cut. Getting that degree requires a substantial investment in time, energy and money. Wouldn’t those resources be better spent on building hours and adding certificates? I asked a few professional pilots for their take on this, and came up with some surprising responses.

A corporate jet pilot told me that in fact, many of the airlines don’t expressly require a degree, though it may be listed as a “preference.” Applicants with military backgrounds or extensive corporate experience or outstanding personal references might wrangle an interview. But having the degree is still considered an asset. If nothing else, it shows that you’ve had the skills and fortitude to set a goal and achieve it, and that you’ve probably learned some important life lessons along the way — how to work well with others, demonstrate leadership and all that stuff. In practice, all other things being equal, an applicant without a degree is going to be less competitive.

An RJ pilot told me another consideration for young folks seeking an aviation career is that it never hurts to have a Plan B. You might find out along the way that a pilot career is not that appealing for you, or that jobs disappear because of changes in the industry. Or you could run into a disqualifying medical issue at some point. You can imagine plenty of scenarios where it might not be a bad idea to have another option. In that case, having some kind of useful college degree in your back pocket is not a bad thing.

A charter pilot and former FAA staffer with a varied career flying all sorts of civilian planes told me even if some of the airlines don’t expressly require a degree, not having one “is just a way to get yourself eliminated.” He agreed with the consensus from my small, casual sample, that if an airline career is your goal, skipping the degree is not a good strategy.

Of course, if four years of school means decades of debt, that’s a tougher equation than if your parents are paying the bill for you. If the airline career works out, it should still prove to be a good investment over time. But is the requirement kind of unfair and unnecessary and maybe even discriminatory? I tend to think it is. But as long as the airlines have enough applicants, they can impose any criteria they like.

In any case, I suspect this current pilot crunch is not going to last too long. Older pilots flying today in two-crew cockpits remember when there was a third chair there, for the flight engineer. Younger pilots flying now are likely going to see the day when there’s just one seat in the cockpit. You won’t need a dog for company — a remotely based second officer will be filling that second slot. As soon as the airlines can show that the remote pilot can safely land a jet if the single pilot on board is incapacitated, we’ll be on the road to single-pilot cockpits. And you know what’s next.

Comments (23)

Single-pilot cockpits may be an emotional evolution toward autonomous aircraft, but they are NOT a technological evolution toward that end.
As for college-degreed pilots... I've taught hundreds of students. I've found NO correlation between education and aptitude or skill. None. If the airlines want to hire based on waistlines or smiles, that's their prerogative. But either of those attributes would be as likely a predictor of flying skills, as is a college degree.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | March 8, 2018 10:26 AM    Report this comment

The remotely based first officer is less likely to happen than an installed robotic device, like the one currently being developed for flying helicopters. Having the ability to remotely control an aircraft would require the installation of a lot of equipment not currently available. With the capability of modern autopilots, a "mechanical Mike" sitting in the right seat is much more likely - and technologically closer to reality.

Posted by: John McNamee | March 8, 2018 11:47 AM    Report this comment

Pilot in Command means two things to me. Pilot being the technical skills to master the aviate, navigate, and communicate. Likely not in need of a college degree. The other is Command. There are books written about this word. It's sort of a psychological pecking order to keep the trust and respect of those commanded. A degreed pilot in my opinion, generally has a better mindset and the confidence to feel worthy of that responsibility having overcome a right of passage. Is a degree necessary to be in command? I think it depends on the personalities of those in command and commanded.

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | March 8, 2018 12:15 PM    Report this comment

Is a degree "necessary" to fly an airliner? No, not really. Does it help? Maybe. Should you still get one? In my opinion, yes. It's always good to have some sort of fall-back plan, especially since the airlines has always meant the possibility of being furloughed or losing your medical and thus your job.

For me, I'm sort of on the opposite end. I don't plan on flying for a living, but having a commercial AMEL/CFII is a handy thing to have in case *I* get laid off (and that has happened, though before I had anything "commercial" on my pilot certificate).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | March 8, 2018 12:36 PM    Report this comment

Of course people don't "need" college to drive a bus, a boat, a plane, or operate machinery.
How much of what most people did in their traditional college is used in their daily job?

A better use of time for pilots would be a 2 year technical school that combined physics, electrical, hydraulics, and meteorology. Basically bring back trade schools instead of universities and liberal education. Same money, save time, be more useful in the real world.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | March 8, 2018 12:56 PM    Report this comment

On Aeronautical Trade Technical Colleges. A part 61 well informed, intelligent and skillful pilot is good enough.. A college degree is complicating and increasing time and costs to become a skillful pilot. A pilot is a technician. Do not need a college degree. Mark Fraser is correct. Go with Trade Tech Schools.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 8, 2018 1:54 PM    Report this comment

Must know hoe to spell H A N G A R.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 8, 2018 3:31 PM    Report this comment

A college degree is definitly not needed to be a pilot. It is only a tool for lazy HR people to use as an excuse to eliminate a prospective hire that does not have one. If you want a degree to use as a backup in case flying does not work out then go for it. It could end up as a life saver if flying turns out to not be your thing. The fact that the airlines still prefer applicants who have one goes to show that the alleged "pilot shortage" in this country is still a myth!

Posted by: matthew wagner | March 8, 2018 3:55 PM    Report this comment

The most significant thing I learned in four years of engineering school was how to problem solve...and the confidence to continue on in the face of seemingly impossible odds. That, and keg parties.

Well, at least one of them helped with my flying.

Posted by: A Richie | March 8, 2018 4:10 PM    Report this comment

I suspect the air lines (and the military branches of government) have performed surveys/analyses that indicate that those having a college degree (in anything) are more likely to be successful employees vis a vis those that do not have a college degree.

Yes, some where there may be a best pilot among many that does not have a degree. But it won't be often.

Between two candidates, one having a degree and one not having a degree, all else being equal, which would you choose?

Posted by: Jeff Land | March 8, 2018 4:14 PM    Report this comment

Between two apt candidates? The most political correct.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 8, 2018 5:15 PM    Report this comment

No one has brought up possession of an A&P v. college ... or maybe toss in a two year AAS degree. No college is one end of the spectrum while a BA or BS might be the other. A happy medium would be an Associate Degree + flight training.

I'd much rather fly behind someone who was well versed in engineering or technical skills than -- say -- possession of a degree in music or basket weaving.

The USAF has been moaning about pilot retention and it's been reported on here. Why not go the route of the US Army ... reinvent the Warrant Officer ranks and allow younger enlisted who have gone out and achieved civilian pilot and maybe mechanic ratings to pursue flight training billets. A test along those lines is in progress but there are no plans to make it anything but a test at this time.

As for commercial flying ... the Colgan rule ruined everything as far as I am concerned.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | March 9, 2018 1:35 AM    Report this comment

Education is very important, but flying is very much importanter!

Posted by: Jason Baker | March 9, 2018 2:13 AM    Report this comment

College by and large is a waste of time. For four years college teaches you how to go into huge amounts of debt while not earning a penny and turning your brain into mush all at the same time. What a deal. Unless you aspire to be a doctor, lawyer or similar professional, college is a complete waste of time and money. If you're going to go to school beyond high school, go a technical college or trade school where you will learn real life skills that will be used on a daily basis throughout your entire life.

I am hiring more and more college graduates that cannot find a job or cannot find a job that they like and are now enrolled in a four year trade program. Technical or trade school without question is my preference. Learn something you can use for life.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | March 9, 2018 3:46 AM    Report this comment

If having a college degree is a contributing factor in helping one to get a job (flying or in any field) then how can it be a waste of time? It might be the only difference in being hired as a pilot (air line or military) and not.

If one has a job without a college degree, getting a degree after being hired will help one move up the corporate ladder. If a manager has two candidates for a promotion within a company (all else being equal), it is probable that he will promote the one with the college degree. Or the one that is working towards a degree if both don't have degrees.

Get an A&P and an AS in Science at the same time. It is a degree. It is a start.

Posted by: Jeff Land | March 9, 2018 8:29 AM    Report this comment

My father in law always maintained that a college degree tells a prospective employer two things about you: 1) That you are capable of learning complex subjects (i.e. you can be trained) and, 2) That you are self-motivated enough to better yourself. However, the simple presence of a college degree is less significant than what the degree is in. No slight intended, but an art history or sociology degree is not likely to prepare you for piloting a commercial airliner, whereas an engineering degree should.

Unfortunately, we Americans have been brainwashed that to get ahead you need to go to college. Not true. There are literally thousands of good jobs in vaious trades that don't require a four-year degree. However, many (such as an auto mechanic or an A&P) do require training in computers, electronics or systems operations. For those, attendance at a good trade school or technical college would be a much better use of your time and tuition money. Having that on your resume should put you on par with most college graduates.

Posted by: John McNamee | March 9, 2018 12:12 PM    Report this comment

I'm probably biased because I have had a more than modestly successful career in the technology field without any college whatsoever. I find it unfortunate that, as John McNamee notes, we have been "brainwashed" into the mindset that a college degree is a prerequisite for flipping hamburgers...or flying an airplane, or (as in my case) being an electronics systems "engineer"/middle manager.

Having said that, however, you have to credit the reasoning that it serves to weed out those who cannot pick a goal & then sit down and concentrate their efforts long enough to finish it. It's just that it is an incredibly expensive way to accomplish that task and, if as is so often the case when the knowledge acquired is of no value, also incredibly wasteful of time and intellect. Again, John McNamee hits it on the head...the more valuable knowledge of targeted technical training should be viewed as equal or superior to the degree in advanced basket weaving.

Posted by: John Wilson | March 9, 2018 9:51 PM    Report this comment

"Having said that, however, you have to credit the reasoning that it serves to weed out those who cannot pick a goal & then sit down and concentrate their efforts long enough to finish it."

John, most kids who go to college don't have a clue as to whey they are going and those that think they know change they're minds or have their minds changed for them by an institution that purposefully insulates itself from the real world. They go because society says you will be nothing if you don't. It's the big lie that has been perpetuated for generations. Not all kids, but, very few know or understand why they go to college.

All things being equal, I will consider an applicant who has real world experience over an applicant who has a diploma and waves it as if it means anything. All it really means is either they or their parents wasted a whole lot of money for very little return if any.

When you get down to it, where the rubber meets the road, it's all about showing up on time, having the right attitude and the right character. You can't teach those qualities in college, they're taught at home.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | March 10, 2018 4:32 AM    Report this comment

"When you get down to it, where the rubber meets the road, it's all about showing up on time, having the right attitude and the right character. You can't teach those qualities in college, they're taught at home."

I could not agree any more with these comments.

How to determine if an applicant has them is the hard part. Between a high school drop out and a guy with a masters degree in basket weaving I would hazard a guess that the latter has more of these desired attributes. But at the end of the day it is really a crap shoot when it comes to hiring employees.

I don't think it is just brain washing that results in companies wanting employees with some sort of a degree over those that have none at all. In the aggregate (but not in every case) I suspect the guy with any degree at all shows a bit more initiative than those without. Does not mean that the guy with the degree will be the better employee. It just improves the chances of same. IMO.

Posted by: Jeff Land | March 10, 2018 8:27 AM    Report this comment

The most visible effect of segregating the herd by possession of a college degree, is a significant employment-placement disadvantage that correlates with socio-economic status.
Employers may be able to justify this practice with regard to entry-level positions. (The SAT has only one objective: predict the liklihood of academic success of first-year college students.) But one's resume - the record of actual accomplishments in the workplace - is a far better predictor of the liklihood of future achievement in the workplace, than is the long-ago attainment of a degree whose half-life in the workplace may be measured in months, rather than decades.
If the sought job requires contact with the public, physical attractiveness often will be the deciding factor. Truth.
I'll take the homely one with the good stick and rudder skills.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | March 10, 2018 9:32 AM    Report this comment

After looking at all of the responses I suppose the short direct answer to the question "Do Pilots Need College?" is no. College is not needed.

But it can't hurt. And it might be helpful.

And with respect to the comment about "physical attractiveness often will be the deciding factor" it can't hurt to be clean and tidy if and when an interview is offered. And to speak clearly. And to look interested.

Now if it is a two man cockpit and I am the capitano, give me the young good looking copilot over the homely one with the better stick and rudder skills. Makes the flying job so much nicer.

Posted by: Jeff Land | March 10, 2018 10:57 AM    Report this comment

Yars is correct. A college diploma will help you get your first job. Five years down the road, if that is all you still have on your resume, it might actually hurt you.

Posted by: John McNamee | March 10, 2018 11:54 AM    Report this comment

This comment from Mr. Yarsley, I think, is key:

The most visible effect of segregating the herd by possession of a college degree, is a significant employment-placement disadvantage that correlates with socio-economic status.

And thanks to all for the robust discussion. Very interesting!

Posted by: Mary Grady | March 10, 2018 2:22 PM    Report this comment

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