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Jet lands at Los Angeles International Airport.

Getty Images / David McNew

The new academic center for Kent State University’s College of Aeronautics and Engineering followed a big donation from FedEx. The company pledged $6.5 million to the university to pay for the large new building, complete with new aircraft simulators, briefing rooms and 70-seat classrooms.

Maureen McFarland, associate dean of academic affairs at the college, who ran the flight program for 10 years, said the department previously operated out of trailers at the Kent State airport. “It was very challenging,” she said.

In order to gain financial support for the project from private companies, the university needed to demonstrate its value to them, said Stephen Sokany, Kent State’s vice president of institutional advancement.

“The world of private philanthropy has really evolved over time,” Sokany said. “Most corporations, their first priorities are to their shareholders. So the idea of corporate philanthropy and just making a gift to an institution like Kent State to be a good corporate citizen, those days are pretty much in the rearview mirror.”

University leaders made the case to FedEx that with a new academic center, the college could increase its potential number of graduating pilots by 67 percent.

The promise so far has held true. In three years, enrollment in Kent State’s flight program has increased about 34 percent. Retention in the program is over 86 percent, higher than the university’s overall goal. Students are “soloing” -- flying an airplane alone, an important milestone in aviation -- earlier than ever, officials said.

Other universities also have seen new donations to their flight programs in recent years. For example, gifts from Delta Airlines and the Delta Lines Foundation helped fund a new aviation building at Auburn University -- the Delta Air Lines Aviation Education Building. FedEx also is offering $2.5 million in aviation scholarships at four universities. And Delta and United have both begun accelerated pipeline programs with partnering colleges in the last two years.

Airlines -- both cargo and passenger alike -- need pilots. And with the historical pipeline for pilots constricting, corporations are taking a closer look at what higher ed can offer.

Pilot Shortage?

In 2018, Boeing predicted that the airline industry would need about 790,000 pilots over the next 20 years, double the workforce at that time. Though some analysis has mostly focused on increasing demand -- people are flying more and want more things delivered -- there are simply fewer pilots in the skies today than there were a few decades ago.

Some airlines have blamed increased training requirements from the Federal Aviation Administration. After a plane went down outside Buffalo, N.Y., in 2009, killing 50 people, Congress and the FAA increased the required number of flight hours for commercial pilots from 250 to 1,500.

Since the rule went into effect, regional airlines and airport executives have pointed to an attendant pilot shortage to explain suspended operations and fewer flights to small communities. (The airline pilots’ union has alternatively suggested the new requirements are part of the reason the U.S. hasn’t had a fatal airline crash since 2009.)

For college graduates though, the FAA only increased the hour requirement to 1,000, making grads slightly more attractive employees than their peers without degrees.

McFarland said changes in technology and population have also affected the pipeline.

Major airlines historically drew nearly half of their pilot forces from the U.S. military, said McFarland, who is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. But as technology has advanced, U.S. forces have needed fewer aircrafts and fewer pilots to complete missions.

“Most dual-seat aircrafts or larger [military] aircrafts have now gone down to a single seat,” she said. “One plane can now do 17 different missions.”

As a result, major airlines have had that part of their pipeline dry up and have started looking with renewed interested in collegiate aviation. And on the civilian side, many airline pilots are now bumping up against a mandatory retirement age of 65.

The Air Line Pilots Association, the union that represents pilots, has argued that the pilot shortage is a manufactured crisis and is really a “pilot pay shortage.” A college degree or flight school can both be expensive. And some regional airlines, where passenger pilots start out, pay as little as $30,000 in the first year.

“Special-interest groups have attempted to manufacture a crisis instead of facing the truth,” the organization wrote in 2018, “a lack of a career path combined with rock-bottom pay and benefits by some airlines are the real reasons they have failed to attract pilots.”

Focus on College

The emphasis on a college education by some aviation companies is indeed an intentional choice, as a four-year degree is not strictly necessary to become a pilot. Independent flight schools can help anyone get the legal credentials to fly, and many pilots still lack a bachelor’s.

At many university flight programs, a four-year degree alone won’t even push a student completely over the finish line. Students at Kent State, for example, typically graduate with about 250 flight hours, a good amount short of the required 1,000. (Kent State employs nearly all of its aspiring pilots as flight instructors after graduation, and they earn their remaining flight hours that way.)

But some corporations, like FedEx and Delta, do require a bachelor’s degree for their pilots. Many other airlines, such as United, Southwest, JetBlue and Spirit Air, may not explicitly require a bachelor's degree, but say they prefer one.

“I am flying passengers for Delta on their connecting carrier,” the pilot said, “but without a four-year degree, I’m not even qualified to apply at Delta mainline.”

A spokesperson for Delta said the company requires a bachelor’s because it values the skills learned in college, such as organization, teamwork and analytical and critical thinking.

“Our students don’t just learn how to fly -- they learn leadership, they learn development, all these other softer skills,” McFarland said.

Delta has also partnered with Kent State through the company’s Propel program, which allows promising students to interview with the company and, if selected, guarantees them an accelerated track into Delta a few years after graduation.

The Propel program currently has 11 university partners, though Delta plans to increase that number this year. United and American have started similar training partner programs in the last two years. United's program, called Aviate, features partnerships with four universities.

Some have said the focus on four-year degrees has been to the airline industry’s detriment, contributing to the overall shortage by making aspiring pilots take on increasing debt. (Delta is not experiencing a pilot shortage, according to a spokesperson for the airline.) And from an equity standpoint, a bachelor’s requirement excludes students who couldn’t get to college.

One regional airline pilot, who spoke to Inside Higher Ed anonymously for fear of future career retaliation, said he’d been held back from advancing to the major airlines because he doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree, although he’s logged over 11,000 flight hours.

But regional airlines often have contracts with major airline partners to run shorter routes for them. While the plane you’re in might say “Delta,” it may really be organized by a regional airline and flown by a regional airline pilot without a bachelor’s degree.

“I am flying passengers for Delta on their connecting carrier,” the pilot said, “but without a four-year degree, I’m not even qualified to apply at Delta mainline.”

Still, investment in the profession grows. And with the millions of dollars flowing in, you’re likely to see more Kent State grads in the skies.

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