Do I need a degree?
How much education is required for a job as a pilot with an airline? Let's start with the most restrictive--a major U.S. airline. Virtually everyone hired has a minimum of a four-year degree and many have a master's degree or a total of six or more years of post-secondary education. Airlines may not state an education requirement, but they will hire first those with the best credentials.
Does that mean your chances are nil with two years or fewer of college? Not necessarily. If you are a member of a minority group (female or non-Caucasian male), you will be competing mostly with other minorities. Having more education is definitely better, but it is always part of a package. That is, how do you measure up when all of your qualifications are considered together?
One way you can improve your employability is by adding various extras to your application that help a prospective employer realize you're aware of your deficiencies and are addressing them. Enroll at a local college and show your current status on your application. Look into some of the alternative schools that give credit for life experience and offer a variety of training options (online, correspondence, part-time) to help you complete your degree. Much of your experience, including flight ratings and special aviation training courses that you've already completed, can be turned into college credits from an accredited institution.
Perhaps you're working for a company that has a learn-while-you-earn program that will help you finance the cost of your higher education. Combine flight training with a learn-while-you-earn program at a school that gives college credit for flight ratings and employs its students as well.
Smaller airlines are usually more lenient on the education rule. When pilot hiring at major airlines picks up, the other airlines find that their supply of applicants is limited. Minimum qualifications (including flight time, ratings, education, and experience) will be adjusted according to what is available among the applicants. Education is a mirror of how well you'll do in that airline's training program. If you have very little education and come across as lacking in vocabulary, life skills, and "street smarts," employers may use the "not enough education" excuse to move on to an applicant who will represent them better to the traveling public.
Never presume that you're unqualified for a job. Instead, assume that you're unique and have a range of special qualities that distinguish you from other applicants. Highlight your talents and accomplishments. Sometimes an explanation as to why you didn't start or finish a degree, or why your grades were less than sterling, can help offset what might be considered a minus on your application. It's your job to sell yourself.
Capt. Karen Kahn is the author of Flight Guide for Success: Tips and Tactics for the Aspiring Airline Pilot and a career counselor. A Master CFI and 30-year airline pilot, she flies the Boeing 757/767 for a major U.S. carrier.