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Schools follow different flight paths: Aviation programs see contrasting demand

June 27, 2005

Two aircraft maintenance programs in close proximity to each other are far apart when it comes to successfully filling classrooms with budding mechanics.

Times are so tough for Vincennes University's struggling aircraft maintenance program at Indianapolis International Airport's Aviation Technology Center that it asked for permission to conduct three non-aviation degree programs there.

The aviation program, which enrolled about 300 students in the mid-1990s, now has about 75.

Vincennes officials blame the United Airlines Maintenance hub closure, which displaced 1,200 mechanics, and 9/11 for declining enrollment.

"Indy had its own 9/11 when United pulled out, which affected our enrollments here very dramatically," said Art Haase, dean of Vincennes' technology division.

Meanwhile, the Aviation Institute of Maintenance, a nearby proprietary, or private, school that offers the same aviation maintenance degree, has no trouble filling its classrooms.

The Virginia-based vocational trade school chain, which purchased ATA Training Corp. from ATA Airlines Inc. in April 2004, has 150 students going through its aviation maintenance program at 7251 W. McCarty St., according to Gerald Yagen, president of AIM.

"Business is booming," Yagen said. "9/11 is far behind us."

When AIM purchased ATA's training school, it came with 82 students.

"We're successful due to a different type of management," said Andy Duncan, who runs AIM Indianapolis. "We're not trying to diversify; we're not pulling away from our core strength."

The for-profit chain of 16 vocational schools, including six that teach only aircraft maintenance, differs from Vincennes in its aviation program's structure, but not in the degree students can earn.

That's because the facilities, faculty and curriculum at both schools must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.

But because AIM is private and Vincennes is public, AIM's approach to getting students in the classroom differs greatly, as do its tuition costs, said Jeff Weber, who heads the Commission of Proprietary Education, the regulatory body over for-profit schools like AIM. Weber previously worked for the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.

AIM may be more aggressive in recruiting students because it is for-profit, Weber said. It has strong marketing campaigns and may draw students from outside the state.

Also, the AIM program is shorter because fewer general education courses are included.

"That's neither good nor bad," Weber said. "It means students can get through a proprietary school faster and start earning wages sooner. These students are very goal-directed; they know what they want."

The tradeoff for a shorter time in the classroom is higher tuition, Weber said. AIM's 18-month program costs more than twice the $13,000 tuition for Vincennes' two-year program.

Vincennes asked the ICHE for permission to add non-aviation courses at the Indianapolis facility after a hoped-for boost from Chicago-based AAR Corp.'s decision to occupy two of the 12 hangars at the old United facility didn't materialize.

The ICHE granted permission June 10 for Vincennes to begin offering associate's degrees in computer networking specialist, security and wireless specialist, and computer software support specialist.

The school hopes the offerings will boost enrollment by up to 50 students.

VU officials see signs of an airline industry comeback and the expected retirement of mechanics over the next decade as indicators that the demand for aircraft mechanics will also rebound.

"The fact is, the industry has turned around over the last six to 12 months," said Michael Gehrich, who oversees the ATC. With airlines like [Indianapolisbased] Republic [Airways Holdings Inc.] growing by leaps and bounds, corporations less willing to have their executives fly commercial airlines, and an influx of smaller airplanes that can get passengers closer to their final destination, ATC is wellpositioned to take advantage of the turnaround the industry is experiencing, Gehrich said.

Despite the promising signs and ATC's optimistic outlook, enrollment in the aviation program has not picked up enough to fill the classrooms. The ICHE wants to make sure a balance is struck between using space for students enrolling in the new programs and making sure there is still room should the aviation program start flying high again.

Vincennes has managed the ATC; the facility is owned by the Indiana Transportation Finance Authority, said Ken Sauer, with the commission.

"Vincennes does need to use the space," he said. "But we want to be careful regarding the space issue. We are not wanting to establish a Vincennes campus there."

Currently, the ATC is using 26 percent of the facility's traditional classroom space, Haase said. If the school fills a section in each of the new programs, the school would go to 42-percent capacity, he said.
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