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Aviation school adds five degree programs: Embry-Riddle considered closing local campus

January 15, 2007

One of the nation's most prominent aviation schools is giving Indianapolis another chance.

After withstanding a plunge in enrollment, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is adding five degree programs at its center here, with most of them aimed at careers outside the turbulent commercial aviation sector. It also plans to expand beyond its local student base of mostly working adults to court recent high school grads.

Though in Indianapolis for 13 years, Embry-Riddle has had all the profile here of a stealth fighter aloft on a moonless night.

Spotty marketing and an airline industry still smarting from 9/11 have taken their toll. Local enrollment now ranges from 30 to 60 students in a given term-roughly half of what it was two years ago.

"It's been a struggle for the last couple years," said Ashley Bischoff, a former U.S. Air Force air traffic controller who in April was tapped as first officer of the local center.

"They actually talked about closing the center."

Instead, "My boss said we're going to look at this as a startup operation."

Even Embry Riddle's offices are new. A couple of months ago, the school moved just up the road to commercial space at 5726 Professional Circle, just east of Indianapolis International Airport. Unpacked boxes dot the floor of Bischoff's office.

She's also been spending time lately at Scott Air Force Base, about 20 miles east of St. Louis, in Belleville, Ill. The base is now Indianapolis' first extension campus, with classes starting there this month.

Perhaps the most significant growth opportunity, however, came in August, when the Indiana Commission on Proprietary Education approved four new bachelor's programs and a master's in management program.

The bachelor's programs offer degrees that can be used outside of aviation. They include a basic technical management degree, plus specialties in logistics, occupational health and safety, and professional valuations.

Bischoff said one of her first tasks was to identify degree programs with special importance to this market. Logistics was one of them.

Embry Riddle's new approach is in sync with plans by the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership to promote the region's transportation/distribution/logistics sector, better known as TDL.

On the other hand, employment in the airline industry has been falling. Although low-cost and regional airlines have seen job growth, employment at the large, mainline carriers plummeted 28 percent between 2002 and 2006, to 263,000 from 367,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Overall airline employment fell 16 percent over that period, to 403,000.

"We had to develop some degrees that are more general or that have appeal to those outside the industry," Bischoff said.

Embry-Riddle isn't the only aviation school to feel the pain. A couple of miles away at the airport, the number of students enrolled at Vincennes University's aviation technology program fell to about 80 in 2004 versus upward of 300 in the mid-1990s. Most at the school study to become aircraft mechanics.

The evaporating student base followed the post-2001 industry downturn and United Airlines' cutbacks and eventual closing, in 2003, of its Indianapolis aircraft maintenance base.

Another blow locally was the Chapter 11 reorganization of Indianapolis-based ATA Airlines, which discontinued scheduled service here and slashed jobs system-wide from about 7,000 in 2002 to only about 2,000 in 2006.

But the industry is showing signs of recovery, and with Chicago-based airline maintenance firm AAR Corp. now growing at the former United base, Vincennes enrollment is, too. It has now topped 100 students.

"The big thing is, AAR has moved into the old United facility and they're going gangbusters right now," said Michael Gehrich, chairman of Vincennes' aviation program.

Because many of the more than 1,200 mechanics United let go in Indianapolis and thousands more around the country were forced into retirement, prospective mechanics shied away from the industry. But lately, Gehrich gets phone calls from maintenance firms from New York to Washington state desperate for mechanics.

"Aviation is back, alive and well in Indianapolis and it's a good field to be in," he said.

To the extent some of those mechanics want to return to schools such as Embry-Riddle and get more advanced degrees to go into management, all the better.

But Embry-Riddle administrators also are trying to lure fresh high school grads to their numerous satellite campuses, including Indianapolis. In previous years, the university wanted students to start school at its main campus in Florida.
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