To college or not to college?

Hey there, I am new to this site and was hoping to start a conversation with someone that can help answer some of my most basic questions, since I can not seem to find many legitimate answers online. I am very interested in becoming a commercial airline pilot and have begun trying to find which path, with regards to education, is the most beneficial and direct. While I understand that there are lots of guidelines based on how many hours you have to fly to obtain your license, I am curious where college fits in to all of this and if it is even necessary. I have found a handful of schools that offer aviation degrees and I have also found just outright flight schools. I am specifically interested in the ATP program but I am not sure if this program is something I should start with, do while attending college, or wait until completing a degree.
Any information is much appreciated.

Hi Stevie and Welcome!

While I have to say this is a fairly common question, I do like the way you phrase it. Most people simply ask do I have to go to college? You asked “where college fits” and I feel that’s important to know so kudos. Ok so where does it fit? First a quick history/regulatory lesson.

The FAA issues 3 types of pilot licenses, Private, Commercial and ATP (Airline Transport Pilot, there are ratings too but that’s a separate convo). To fly AND get paid you need a Commercial License. With that you can instruct, fly cargo, banner tow, cropdust and up until a few years ago, be a First Officer (FO) at a Part 121 Commercial Airline (all regularly scheduled airlines operate under FAA Part 121, there also Part 91 carriers but they’re generally small charter types so for our discussion assume we’re talking Part 121 ok?). You only needed your ATP license to be a Capt (PIC, Pilot in Command) at an airline. Now a few years back you may remember there was the famous Colgan Airlines crash in Buffalo NY. There were many deaths and much public outcry. Lack of experience was blamed (which is a GROSS oversimplification) and in a somewhat kneejerk reaction (IMHO) the govt implemented HR5900, The Airline Safety Act aka “The 1500 hour Rule”. The rule basically says to fly for a commercial airline, EVEN as a FO, you must have your ATP which means 1500 hrs min. All this aside, college never entered the equation. The FAA could care less if you had a degree and neither did the Regionals. Only time it became an issue was if you wanted to move up to the Majors. Most Major airlines have a 4yr degree as hiring requirement because they like it but there’s absolutely no law requiring it.

Now, when the FAA changed the rule they unwittingly contributed to what has become a pilot shortage in this country. Regionals had been hiring pilots with Commercial licenses and anywhere from 500-1000 hrs. This created a “gap” because the pilots now needed 1500hrs which means another year or more building time. Ever since (combined with other factors) the Regionals have been struggling to fill pilot slots. They went to the FAA for some relief and the FAA offered a compromise, the Restricted ATP (allowing you to fly as a FO at an airline, not a Capt) with less than 1500 hrs BUT with some additional requirements. You can get an R-ATP with the following:

•Military pilots need only 750 hours total flight time and 200 hours cross-country time
•Graduates from approved four-year universities with a Bachelor’s degree and an aviation major need only 1000 hours total flight time and 200 hours cross-country time if they:•Complete at least 60 credit hours of aviation related coursework, and
•Hold a Commercial Pilot Certificate that was earned through the university’s part 141 training program
•If they complete less than 60 credit hours, but at least 30 credit hours, they need 1250 hours total flight time and 200 hours cross-country time
Graduates from approved two-year colleges with an Associate’s degree and an aviation major need only 1250 hours total flight time and 200 hours cross-country time if they:•Complete at least 30 credit hours of aviation related coursework, and **
•Hold a Commercial Pilot Certificate that was earned through the school’s part 141 training program

So while you still don’t need a degree to fly for a Regional Airline, the FAA has now made it part of the equation.

So what’s best? The answer is whatever’s best for Stevie. You can go to college, get your degree AND do your flight training at the university (which may allow you to lower your required hours), build your time after and get hired. Or do you study something else, train after, then build time, then get hired? You can also do your flight training first, build time, get hired at a Regional and take care of college during or after part-time or online. There are obviously pros and cons to all. Are you still home? Do your parents get a vote? Again only you can decide which route is best. Personally I like getting your training done (with ATP or elsewhere). That way while you’re in school you could possibly get an instructor gig nights or weekends and build time while you’re working on your degree so when you graduate you already have the time and can get hired ASAP. But again it’s what’s best for YOU. Hopefully this helps some.




To me it really depends on your age. If you are 16-18 and planning what to do then I absolutely think you should attend college first and complete a four year degree, then complete your flight training. If you are a bit older and already in the workforce then you might want to consider training now and getting an online degree while you fly for a regional airlines. I recommend having a degree outside of aviation so that you have a backup plans for some reason you are unable to fly any longer. You will not need a degree to fly for a regional, but it is an absolute requirement to fly for the majors.

I realize that Adam and I took different approaches here, this really drives home the point that it is up to you and works best for you. How old are you? Are you currently working or in school?



Thank you both so much for responding, both answers are very helpful. I have decided it would be most beneficial for me to attend a college that allows me to earn my license first, and then continue by working on a bachelor degree while still flying with the school, or a program affiliated with them at least. I am hoping that such a place exists but so far all I can manage to find are programs that provide me with the licensing courses, then requires me to either go to school online or start another program at a different place completely. I know that for me, completing classes on line really does not match with my learning style well. I was hoping on some incite as to which colleges anyone could recommend.

A little bit of background about me to might be helpful. I am 24 years old and living on my own in New York. My family is not really available to help me with any sort of loan process, so finding a college that offers federal student aid is really my best option. I am hoping to stay away from private schools that only offer personal loans. I am not attached to New York so I am willing to make the move for the right school, but I am definitely interested in staying in a larger city. It seems like most of the schools I am finding are in California.

Again thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my questions. I am very ready to start on my journey just having a hard time finding the right direction.


Hey Stevie,

There are a number of school both large and small across the country. Unfortunately the only ones I’m familiar with are the big ones like Embry Riddle and Kent State, both of which are VERY expensive. Hopefully someone else might chime in but meanwhile I’d keep Googling.