NOTAM: Aviation Education Canceled May 21, 2011

by Dr. Patrick Mattson
Professor Emeritus
St. Cloud State University-Aviation (1986-2010)

A NOTAM, an acronym for “Notice to Airmen,” is submitted to aviation authorities to alert interested persons of any hazards to aviation enroute or at a specific location. On November 10, 2010, President Earl Potter, III, during an interview by the campus radio station, KVSC, sent out an alert saying that he was in the process of closing a “viable program,” a nationally accredited one, whose alumni have excelled in the aviation industry. On December 10, 2010, Dr. Potter informed the St. Cloud State University (SCSU) community that closure of the program was his final decision. After almost 70 years, a quality aviation education program was canceled leaving students and parents with less choice in the upper Midwest to pursue their flight, operations and/or aviation management career dreams. There were no cautionary advisories given to the aviation faculty during the past two to three years; the faculty were never given a chance to propose solutions to correct any problems that the administration had cited in their decision. Several administrators had assured the department faculty-staff they were not a target for closure in the campus reorganization plan.

Aviation is recognized as an academic field of study by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) code 49 (Transportation and Materials Moving). In his 2007 dissertation, Dr. C. Daniel Prather (Middle Tennessee State University) surveyed collegiate aviation students (n=98) and concluded there is a significant preference among students regarding what they considered important when selecting which institution and aviation program to attend. Location was the top concern (65.7%); cost was second at 62.9%. Many Minnesota and Wisconsin veterans are returning home with Post 9-11 GI Bill education benefits and aviation studies is often cited as a degree program of choice; they will now have less choice in Minnesota. SCSU has provided upper Midwest students – many from Minnesota and Wisconsin – an affordable, cost-effective aviation education. Aviation is a viable, applied degree area (math, business, and science) that belongs in a 4-year higher education institution.

In an interview with the SCSU student newspaper on Oct. 17, 2010, Dr. David DeGroote, dean of the college housing, the Aviation Department stated there were “large numbers of similar programs being closed around the country due to the slowing airline industry and high costs associated with program upkeep.”

Continuing he said  “So the question becomes do we retain our program in the face of a ‘closure’ trend because we would then be one of a limited number of available options, or do we follow the trend?” My question to him is – why wouldn’t you want to expand to capture market if there are many programs closing? My data search indicates the opposite trend is occurring in collegiate aviation: over 50 two- and four-year programs established or expanded since the summer of 2000. Only two, out of about 200 two- and four-year programs, face outright closure: SCSU and University of Illinois-Urbana-Champagne with four programs targeted on a limited basis: Mankato State, MN, Dowling College, NY (dropped flight), Daniel Webster, NH (dropped flight after takeover by ITT), and San Juan College, NM (dropped flight training after Mesa Air Group ended its longtime support). Most recently the University of North Texas, Denton, TX, began classes in the fall of 2010 for their new Aviation Logistics degree and Lakeland College in Sheboygan, Wisconsin unveiled plans for a fall 2011 startup of their new aviation minor.

SCSU Aviation graduates have excelled in their chosen careers: many now manage large and small airports, work for successful FBOs, fly for regional and major airlines and corporate flight departments, serve our country in all branches of the armed forces, work in airline and airport operations, and are employed as certified air traffic controllers. Even though the aviation industry news appears grim at times, retirement of the current workforce is fueling a demand for new collegiate-trained workers. Boeing predicts the airlines will need one million aviation workers between 2010 and 2029; similarly corporate aviation should experience significant employee needs to keep their airplanes in the air. Recently Dr. Gerald Dillingham, Director of Civil Aviation Studies at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) said, “We are hearing widespread concern about a pending pilot shortage in the not-too-distant future from almost every set of stakeholders that we talk to.”

According to SCSU Aviation Department faculty, annual graduations averaged from 25 to 40 students and there are 180-plus students accepted to the aviation major. Recent SCSU advertisements have drawn many new aviation students to campus by proclaiming that an aviation degree could provide graduates with “a career with a view.” One must ask if there was turbulence from external sources, unrelated to budget issues that could not have been avoided by the dedicated aviation faculty and staff.

I fully realize that SCSU and the State of Minnesota are in the midst of a severe budget crisis and must make cuts. If one of the primary considerations in this decision was that the department’s tuition-to-expense ratio was low, then why weren’t five other programs with poorer performance and higher costs than the aviation department not considered for closure?

Administration says the program ran a deficit of about $252,430 in fiscal year 2010, but I feel that closing the aviation program will result in more revenue lost than gained. If we use a conservative number, say 150 aviation students, and multiply that number by $6,654 [2010-11 tuition/fees], you will have about $998,100 in revenue raised (students enrolled for 15 credits – not just aviation classes). The Fiscal Year 2011 estimated cost of the Aviation Department is $580,000, which leaves $418,100 in revenue lost and not replaced. Seems to me that SCSU’s bottom line will have a net operating loss, rather than cost savings as the administration is portraying when aviation is not offered as a major.

During the past year I visited with two western Wisconsin families whose sons wanted to fly for the airlines. They had done their research and were happy to find that SCSU offered a nationally accredited (AABI) aviation education program near their home. I will never forget the look on their faces when I told them the program is being closed – each parent readily understood that their child’s career choice might be out of reach as it would mean enrolling at a more expensive college. Closing the aviation program will leave a void in the options for quality, cost- effective aviation education in the Midwest. I wonder if another university or college will step up and file a flight plan to offer aviation classes either in residence or via on-line methods in the Wisconsin-Minnesota region? Perhaps a partnership will emerge with an on-line school (Utah Valley University or Eastern New Mexico University) and a 2-year school in the region. The proposed degree model could use the excellent flight training provided at the local FBOs and would not require the college or universities owning or operating any aircraft or hiring flight instructors.

Unfortunately, at this time, it appears that aviation students in the upper Midwest might have to re-file their education flight plans without a convenient, cost-effective option for their smooth flight.

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