Should Aviation Fly Again?
by Silence Dogood
“Change is inevitable, progress is optional.” Anonymous

It is important to know right from the start that the documents presented here were all created from official SCSU data that was distributed by the administration.

Programs either adapt or die. Based on the number of enrolled students shown in documents from academic reorganization, the aviation program was the 10th largest program at SCSU:

Science programs have historically been ‘higher cost’ programs than most others at a university because of the specialized laboratory equipment and smaller class sizes required for the laboratories. In the College of Science and Engineering, according to University data, only four of thirteen programs made money in both FY07 and FY08:

This data can be expressed in many ways; one way is to calculate the profitability ratio—essentially how much a program earns in tuition for each dollar spent. Programs that make money have profitability ratios greater than 1.00. Correspondingly, programs that cost more than they bring in have profitability ratios less than 1.00. For the six programs that lost money in FY08 (excluding RAS because it was too new to have graduates), the following table can be generated:

Clearly, the aviation department’s profitability ratio is much higher than many of the programs, with the exception of the new RAS program, in the College of Science and Engineering and, based on the table above, the aviation department lost the least amount of money of any of the programs in FY08.

There have been numerous statements made that the aviation department annually lost between $500,000 and $600,000. In FY08, the university’s own data shows that the aviation program only lost $136,384!

The aviation program at SCSU was a strong program and was adapting to the changes it faced. In 2008, the aviation department applied for FAA approval to be a Controller Training Initiative program. The COSE Dean and Provost authorized the application and after a site visit and formal authorization by the FAA in 2008, students were eligible to be added beginning in the Spring of 2009.

One retired faculty member was brought back half time and an adjunct was hired to teach two classes. In a small department—one with only five faculty members, the addition of essentially a three-quarters time person substantially increased the ‘expenses’ for the program. Unfortunately, when you add faculty until you build the program, it looks bad from a numbers viewpoint because you have added expenses and not yet received additional tuition from students.

As a result, the Tuition/Expense ratio for aviation for FY09 dropped to 0.60 from 0.78 in FY08. Anyone who understands what it takes to develop a program might have understood the reason for the decline. Unfortunately, it almost seemed like something had to go and since aviation was the only program to decline substantially from FY08, aviation was the ‘low hanging fruit.’

At Meet and Confer on December 12, 2013, President Potter handed out the following table showing the number of graduates of the Aviation program by concentration:

Clearly, programs adapt and the Professional Flight numbers have declined significantly while the Management and the Operations numbers have remained quite healthy. The aviation faculty found that many professional flight students had switched into the operations or management track to complete their aviation degree without occurring additional flight training costs. These students would often complete their aviation degree and complete their flight training once they were in the work force. When the aviation closure decision was initially announced by former Dean David DeGroote in 2010, some professional flight students made a deliberate switch into the operations and management tracks in order to graduate in a more expeditious manner. Had the program not been slated for closure, the aviation program might have been expected to start seeing growth in the numbers of additional non professional flight students including air traffic controllers and other niche programs including unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) support personnel.

At the same time that the President distributed the data on the aviation majors, he brought up the need of the university to develop “niche” programs. It is almost ironic that the aviation program was already a “niche” program as the only accredited 4-year aviation program in Minnesota. The air traffic control program would have been the only program at a university in Minnesota giving it a “niche” status as well.

According to an Associated Press article reproduced on the Channel 5 News website, the University of North Dakota opened the nation’s first unmanned aircraft degree program in 2009 and started with “five students in 2009 to 120 students last year.” Two other universities, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Kansas have recently added their own programs. Also according to the AP Article, “The Federal Aviation Administration projects 7,500 commercial drones could be aloft within five years of getting widespread access to American airspace.” According to the Huffington Post Business: “Last year, Congress directed the FAA to grant unmanned aircraft access to U.S. skies by September 2015.” This is something that is going to happen sooner rather than later.

Camp Ripley has been designated as a regional site for training for drones or UAVs so the proximity to St. Cloud would have been a distinct advantage for SCSU. Had the aviation program not been closed, it might well have added another “niche” program to the university’s portfolio of unique programs.

Interesting facts:

  • In the Fall of 2008, the aviation program had 1,026 student credit hours. In the Fall of 2009 the number of student credit hours rose to 1,288. In the Fall of 2010 the number of student credit hours rose again to 1,318. Contrary to some information, the aviation program was growing its enrollment.
  • The average enrollment for the past 20+ years was approximately 230 students per year. At SCSU there are 199 programs with enrollments less than 100 enrolled students.

The aviation program at SCSU was a high quality program—it was the only accredited aviation program in Minnesota. In 2008, the aviation program had revised its offerings to add an air traffic controller concentration. There is little doubt that, had the administration not chosen to close the aviation program, it would have developed a program for UAVs.

Here’s the real lesson to be learned looking back: successful, accredited programs that attract students who graduate and find jobs can be eliminated almost at the whim of the administration. What is really scary is that if somehow you fit the President’s definition of a “niche” program, you might be next for elimination.

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