Written by Doug Taylor   
How Important is a College Degree?
In my opinion, the importance of a college degree is directly related to how far you want to go in aviation.  For example, Northwest will not consider an applicant without a four-year degree while other airlines may.  Just because an airline does not require a degree, doesn't mean that they are going to consider you on equal footing as a degreed pilot.  For example, American Airlines doesn't have a requirement for a four-year degree however, the average new-hire pilot has at least a bachelors degree (according to Air Inc). At "least" having a bachelor's degree means that some applicants that were hired have advanced degrees like masters, doctorates, etc.

Many regional airlines will hire without degrees also, but that may be as far as you go career-wise and may never afford the chance to fly the "heavies".   Remember, the key is to be as competitive as possible in order to reach your goal in aviation.   While I was flying for Skyway Airlines, I worked with several excellent pilots who didn't have a college education.  However, since they had no degree, their next step in their careers would have to be to one of the few airlines that don't require one.  In other words, if you don't have a degree, you will limit your career advancement greatly.  It's never too late to pursue a degree and with the advent of satellite campuses of universities, independent study and other types of professional/adult education, it's never been easier.

Does the particular degree I get matter?
Well a degree in Aeronautical Science is as much a bachelors degree as one in Applied Astrophysics.  Even though I majored in Aeronautical Science, I'd highly recommend that you consider minoring in a non aviation-related degree as a back up.  So far, I've flown with pilots with majors in business, aviation, physics, mathematics, liberal arts and a variety of other degrees. In fact, the pilot who I attended MD-88 training with as a forestry major.

The actual degree program does not matter no matter what a particular college or university may tell you. The important part of having a degree is showing to the airline that you were able to meet the academic requirements as part of completing college. As an airline pilot, you endure recurrent training (training required annually), initial training (training on a new airplane) and upgrade training (transitioning from first officer to captain). So essentially, you spend most of your career studying new systems, procedures and techniques until the day you retire. The airlines want to know that you have good study habits and your success, or lack thereof, in college will show the airline how well you learn.

Why Does a College Degree Matter?
I get a lot of email from interested individuals asking about if they can get hired by a major airline without a degree but with quality flight experience. Well, the short answer is that if XYZ Airlines wanted to hire 500 pilots and didn't specify anything other than requiring the applicant to have a commercial pilot certificate or ATP rating, they would probably recieve at least 25,000 applications from interested pilots.

By requiring pilots to have college degrees, they're ensuring that the applicant at least has some ability to suceed in classroom learning, practice the same discipline used in acquiring the degree in the ground school and helps weed out to find the "cream of the crop". I'm not saying that pilots with degrees are any better or worse than pilots without, but obtaining a college degree can be a whole lot easier than making it to the cockpit.

A college degree also should matter to you on a personal level. In 2001, the industry saw a lot of pilot furloughs where they were temporarily laid off and had to pursue other employment. Now if you have no skills or education apart from what you learned while attaining your certificates and ratings and you're not able to find a flying job, you'll be hard pressed to maintain your quality of life and continue to feed your family. If you want to keep all of your options open in the airline industry, get a degree.

What about a non-aviation degree?
Good choice. I don't mean this to denegrate aviation universities whatsoever, in fact I'm a ERAU Aeronautical Science graduate and was very happy with the quality of my education. However, now since I've been at the airlines a few years, I really wished I had focused on a non-aviation degree program because there are so many (academic) things other than aviation that I'm interested in (computers, physics, finance, etc) that I wished I had studied in college.

Plus, having a non-aviation degree is a great backup. Many of the captains I fly with, almost most I'd estimate, have some sort of side business. The captain I flew with when I originally wrote this page manufactures high-end pool cues and golf clubs, others are involved in financial services businesses, ranching, and a multitude of other things.