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Student Debt Prevents This Pilot From A Dream Career

Despite an ongoing pilot shortage, aspiring pilots of color face financial barriers in entering the industry.

Grounded: One Student’s Journey to Afford an Education

Despite an ongoing pilot shortage, aspiring pilots of color face financial barriers in entering the industry.

August 2, 2022
Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz headshot

Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz

Managing Director, Film + Video Projects

Jess Fregni

Jessica Fregni

Writer-Editor, One Day

When first-generation Latinx college student Moises “Moe” Angulo began attending one of the world's most respected universities specializing in aviation in 2017, he thought he was taking his first steps toward a lucrative and rewarding career as a commercial airline pilot.

Four years later, Angulo finds himself not at the controls of an airliner, but seated daily in an office as a flight coordinator for a private jet charter broker. That’s because even though Angulo completed a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics and most of his pilot training at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, two remaining certifications—and the roughly $15,000 it costs to complete them—stand between him and his dream career.

With upwards of $230,000 in student loans, Angulo can’t bear the thought of taking on even more debt as he struggles to pay his current bills.

Despite an ongoing pilot shortage crisis in the United States, some aspiring young pilots of color like Angulo are being grounded by the exorbitant costs associated with entering the airline industry—a historically white, male-dominated field. Earning an airline transport pilot certificate requires a certain amount of flight experience, certifications to fly specific aircraft, and can cost between $80,000 to $100,000. Having a four-year degree, while not always required, helps pilots become more marketable.

But many students of color don’t have the generational wealth to rely on to help pay those costs. Indeed, student loan debt disproportionately affects borrowers who are people of color because of the racial wealth gap. And while higher education is widely considered a key to narrowing that gap, its costs have been shown to contribute to widening the gap for students of color. 

As a child of immigrants from Mexico, Angulo had few resources to turn to for advice about the American financial aid system and the long-term implications of taking out student loans. Angulo consulted with his parents about his college plans, but “they didn't have the knowledge on this either, because they didn't go to college,” he said. “I just knew that they wanted whatever was best for me.” And so Angulo took “a leap of faith” to pursue his dream career.

After graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Moe Angulo finds himself in immense student debt that prevents him from obtaining two remaining certifications to live his dream as a pilot. courtesy of Moe Angulo

“Looking at it now, I wish I would have gotten a lot more counseling and stuff like that when it came to like financial aid.” With such a high loan balance remaining, Angulo is hesitant to take on the additional debt necessary to complete his final certifications, leaving him at a career standstill for now.

Angulo’s dilemma comes at a time when the airline industry is contending with a significant pilot shortage, leading to thousands of canceled and delayed flights this summer. Early in the pandemic, thousands of pilots left the industry after being offered early retirement packages. Now, as more people are traveling again, airlines are scrambling to recruit new pilots to meet the demand. 

Some in the aviation industry are seeking to grow and diversify the pilot talent pipeline by reducing some of the steep financial barriers to entry. United Aviate Academy, a program by United Airlines, covers $17,750 in pilot training costs and guarantees a job with United upon completion of the program. The program also offers $2.4 million in scholarships distributed through organizations seeking to diversify the industry—including the Latino Pilots Association and the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals. A number of regional airlines are also developing programs that offer tuition reimbursement and financial assistance.

Other fields, including education and healthcare, are similarly struggling to recruit new talent due to the high costs of a college education in the United States. About 43.4 million Americans collectively owe $1.6 trillion in student loan debt. Ultimately, some of these borrowers are forced to sideline dream careers to seek other jobs that will help them afford their monthly student loan payments and other bills. For Angulo, this looks like planning flight paths and crew logistics, rather than flying planes, until he is able to complete his final certifications.

“It was kind of a risk I took for something great to happen,” Angulo said. “But at the same time, it's a lot of weight carried on my shoulders.” To Angulo, this weight includes the expectations many immigrant youth feel to achieve economic mobility for their families. “A lot of the things that I thought about were just kind of those expectations and the wants to be a better person and do what my parents weren’t able to do.” 

Angulo says that despite not coming from money or an aviation family, which he says is typical for many pilots, he refuses to give up on his dream.

“I didn't want that to stop me,” Angulo added.

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