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Going to College to Become an Airline Pilot




There’s a lot of conflicting information online about whether or not a 4-year college degree is required to become an airline pilot. But do you need a degree to be a pilot at the airlines?

Some sources claim it’s absolutely mandatory, while others say you don’t need one at all. As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Do You Need a Degree to be a Pilot?

Most majors list 4-year degrees as preferred and some even mandate them. Even during pilot shortages, the majors are very competitive when compared to the regional airline, so it’s always advisable to get whatever edge you can over your competition.

AirlinesDegree Requirements
American AirlinesNone
United AirlinesPreferred
Curious about how much each airline pays? Check out our post on airline pilot salaries. Or click their names above to go to their pilot salary articles.

This is not necessarily the case at the regionals. Pilot demand always hits the regionals before the majors so they can’t afford to be as picky.

So the question becomes: how should you balance going to college with flight training?

There are a few different options and each one is going to work better for different individuals depending on their situation.

Most major airlines have 4-year degrees as a “preferred” requirement. Updated as of 6.25.2020

As you weigh your options on becoming an airline pilot, you should also consider how much you’ll be paid based on the path you choose. Take a look at our pilot salary guide to get an idea of how much you could earn.

Studying for aviation college test

1. Attend a 4-year university that offers flight training

Many choose to get their flight training through a 4-year university that offers flight training, a route that will have you flight training while following the traditional college timeline.

Typically you’ll finish all of your ratings by the time you’ve completed your degree program (usually an aviation-related degree to take advantage of the hour reductions mentioned above) and then you’ll need to either instruct or find another job as a pilot to reach the rest of your required hours. If you’re instructing this typically takes around a year.

Timeline to Airline Job:

5-6 years


• Complete your degree and flight training in one location

• Reduced required hours if obtaining aviation degree

• Student loans are more readily available for individuals unable to finance their flight training on their own or with parents’ assistance


• Expensive

• More than 4 years to start flying for the airlines

• Training is not accelerated, meaning you spend more total time on flight training

• No fallback – an aviation degree is only good for aviation

Best for:

Those that are unable to finance without Title IV assistance

• Students who may want to wait a few years and enjoy the “college experience” before starting a job

Train at a flight school instead of going to an aviation college

2. Attend a 4-year university and flight train elsewhere

This is the longest and most expensive option, but it does give the student the most flexibility in their career pathway.

Timeline to Airline Job:

6-7 years


• Multiple career options after completing training

• Ultimately spend less on your flight training vs doing it at a University

• Degree offers security in the event of an industry downturn


• Most expensive, as you are paying for both a 4-year degree and flight training separately

• Takes 6+ years. As important as seniority is in the airlines, you will have to determine if this is a deal breaker for you.

Best for:

• Those who aren’t 100% sure they want to be pilots

• Students who have the means to spend extra money on their education to have flexible career options later in life

3. Attend a flight school and finish your degree online

For those that know they want to be an airline pilot and want to get there as quickly as possible, this is the most attractive option.

Many online university programs will offer credit for the ratings you’ve obtained from flight schools, and you could use this to get up to 45 credit hours. This would reduce your bachelor program after flight training to about two years.

This way you get the aviation degree you need to take advantage of the 250-500 hour discount, while simultaneously instructing to start knocking those hours out.

Given the right circumstances, this pathway could get you through all of your ratings, all of your FAA required hours, AND your bachelor’s degree in just 3-4 years. You could even be flying for a regional during the end of that timeline if you fly enough to reach the required hours prior to obtaining your degree. This is attractive when considering seniority numbers in the airlines.

Liberty University and Purdue University are two popular online aviation programs that allow you to do exactly this.

Timeline to Airline Job:

2-3 years


• Most cost-effective

• Quickest method to get a seniority number

• Reduced required hours if obtaining an aviation degree


• No fallback – aviation is the only career an aviation degree will be useful in

• Very demanding schedule

Best for:

• Those who want to get to the airlines as soon as possible

• People who can forego student loans in order to save more now and earn more in the long term

• Students who are positive they want this career

Do Your Research

Students ask us all the time, do you need a degree to be a pilot. As we’ve presented in this article, the answer isn’t so cut and dry.

Before making a decision on which path is right for you, make sure you understand the concepts of the 1,500-hour rule as well as seniority numbers in the regionals.

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5 responses to “Going to College to Become an Airline Pilot”

  1. Jake Munos

    Hey, I am currently enrolled at a school that offers an aviation degree and am currently working on my private pilot certificate. Money is slowly starting to become an issue. At this point would it still be worth putting a pause on the degree and moving to accelerated flight training to try and get a job with regional airlines and completing the degree online while working with regionals?

  2. brynn kved

    What would you recommend being the best path for a high schooler that will be graduating with their AA degree? Also, wouldn’t you think an airline would prefer an aeronautics degree over, for example, a marketing degree?

    1. Brian Brassaw

      We encourage most recent high school grads to consider jumping right into flight training instead of delaying training and pursuing a degree. At this point, every regional and major airline has dropped their degree requirement because they need pilots so badly. Instead of delaying your airline career by two more years to pursue a bachelor’s degree, you can complete your flight training and hour building in that same amount of time and start working at a regional airline and building your seniority. Of course, if you’re after the college experience and really want the degree then go for it!

      Many of our Zero Time to Airline students will go through all of their flight training and then, once they start working at a regional airline, will get a degree doing online classes. So that’s another route you could consider.

      In our experience, airlines don’t prefer aviation degrees over any other specific field of study. They’re more concerned with the flight hours and your competence as a pilot. If you want to talk with a member of our team to help you decide feel free to reach out to us.

  3. Desmond Dellor

    I want my daughter to enrol in a 4yr university that offers commercial pilot training and certificate, could you recommend one.

    1. Dina Turner

      Can you send me tips too? My son will be graduating with his high school with his AA. I know the best path for him would be to go into flight training, however he really would like to go to a 4 year college, especially because he is a runner and wants to run in college. We are in Florida- Embry Riddle would be ideal but there is no way we could afford that.

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