Help understanding college math program rankings

My son is interested in becoming a pilot. However, after speaking to some pilots and visiting some universities with aviation programs it seems clear the best path forward is to get a non-aviation degree and do flight training afterwards. So we are both thinking a math degree (particularly an applied math degree) might be the most versatile thing to do. Additionally if his pilot career never gets of the ground he has a solid foundation to move on to engineering or the sciences.

So I have some questions that hopefully you guys could help with.

What makes a math program at one college better than at another? I keep seeing lists of best math schools but I just don’t understand what differentiates them.

While my son is a pretty good student (in math and in general) he isn’t likely going to be aiming for the schools listed at the top of those best math program lists. What schools are good matches for a student that wants to major in math but isn’t hyper competitive?

If it helps, we are in California. However, we are looking mostly at private out of state schools. Thanks for the help.

Math as career preparation does somewhat depend on in-major and related electives. Colleges can vary in what areas are covered (some types of courses may be in the math department or other departments). For example:

  • Pure math (pre-PhD). Subareas include analysis, algebra, topology, logic, etc..
  • Finance, actuarial, risk management.
  • Statistics or data science.
  • Computing (e.g. theory, cryptography).
  • Operations research (e.g. solving problems like scheduling aircraft, air crew, and ground crew within constraints of time and cost).
  • High school math teaching.

Why private out of state schools?

Out of state private for a couple reasons.

Out of state so he can have an environment that is different that what he used too. Besides it seems like our in state public schools are seriously impacted and/or commuter campuses.

Private cause the out of state public school tuition hit is hard to swallow. He’d love to go to Purdue or Ohio State but that price increase is insane. Plus it seems like there would be a better shot at financial aid with a private school.

Private schools with the best financial aid are typically the most selective, often reaches for everyone. The same goes for those with the largest endowments and the least impaction or other rationing of courses and majors once students get into the college (which is effectively highly impacted at the admission gate).

If he has a chance to get into those most desirable private schools, it is likely that he will get into a more residential UC, rather than need to go to a CSU (most of which are more commuter heavy).

Run the net price calculators for some of those private eastern colleges and if they make sense, explore some of the smaller liberal arts colleges. Williams has one of the most highly regarded undergraduate math departments. It won’t show up in any of those Math surveys because those are mostly based on graduate school rigor and faculty publishing, neither of which are important at the undergraduate level. Liberal arts colleges mainntain their positions largely because of the level of classroom teaching. Wesleyan is very similar to Williams in educational philosophy, is slightly larger and does have a small PhD program in Math (mainly, Topology) which comes in handy should your son burn through all the intermediate level courses available.

Note also that California is a big state with many different environments, including the locations of the public universities.

Thanks for your perspective on the LACs. My son is a fencer so Drew University is on our radar. However, I cannot find out anything about their math program.

Drew has 10 faculty in math, computer science, and statistics:

Upper level math offerings are rather limited, according to the catalog listing:

If he wants to come east, PA has lots of small LACs. We found some of the lesser known (e.g., Elizabethtown College, Lebanon Valley College, etc.) to be very generous with merit aid making their total COA competitive with the total cost of attendance for our (Maryland) public colleges (without aid). These schools seem to have connections for internships with major companies and the federal government, too. So they must be doing something right.

It’s hard to judge from course listings. For math (my field), I’m looking for the following core upper level classes: one or two semesters of real analysis (sometimes called advanced calculus), complex analysis, abstract algebra, and linear algebra. These days, I highly recommend taking at least one probability/statistics class. Electives will vary with the student’s interests (e.g., number theory, topology, differential equations, etc.).

I agree that Drew’s offerings looked awfully light. I’m surprised. I have a colleague that went to Drew and then on to grad school at RPI, but that was a very long time ago.

@vikow74 - Interesting post. I am an aerospace engineer with a large aerospace manufacturer (undergraduate electrical engineering, graduate EE, math, and physics, PhD Engineering Physics, PE in three states). I have a commercial pilot certificate (airplane single and multiengine land, instrument airplane), and have owned a dozen aircraft at various times over the last 40 years. I do not fly for hire or a living, but rather fly my single engine aircraft in support of consulting work with out of state clients.

If your S is interested in becoming a professional pilot, my strong recommendation is to major in a marketable field other than aviation in college. If your son is mathematically inclined, I would suggest engineering or physics, but engineering is preferable since it has much greater job prospects at the undergraduate level. In most physical sciences, math and physics included, a graduate degree is almost certainly a necessity of one plans to do research in industry or academia in these fields.

Drew IMO is not the first choice for math. Here in NJ, Rutgers, Stevens, and Princeton are the true research universities and leaders in the field with extensive and well regarded math programs. I would consider them before Drew, which has limited faculty and course coverage in math and computer science.

An aviation degree, in my opinion, is next to worthless outside of aviation. Many prospective pilots (not your son, I am certain) are not very interested in academics, but since many commercial airlines and aviation operators today prefer applicants with degrees, the aviation colleges have devised “professional pilot” and “aviation science” degree programs. Most of the professional pilot aspirants I know personally are interested in one thing - flying - and view the college coursework as just another hurdle that must be overcome to get an airline or corporate flying job.

Flying is, and has always been, a precarious career choice. While the airlines today are doing well and are recruiting new pilots, that can change quickly if another economic downturn occurs. Getting all the required flight ratings (private pilot, commercial pilot, instrument, multiengine, and flight instructor) which would be required for an entry level flying job in charter, cargo, etc., operations is very expensive - on the order of $50-60k in addition to college tuition. Aviation colleges’ tuition does not usually include the cost of flight training. In addition to the economic factors affecting the pilot job market, airline pilots must pass a rigorous medical exam every six months. If one develops a medical condition that is disqualifying (of which there are many), he/she is essentially retired. I knew a former airline captain who required a coronary bypass at age 50. He was out of airline flying for almost 2 years, until he was able to satisfy the FAA medical branch that he was back to good health.

Flying for a scheduled airline requires an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. This rating requires 1200-1500 hours of flight time to obtain. Typically, one first receives his or her commercial pilot certificate (which requires 200 hours of flight experience and training) and builds to required time flying for non-airline commercial operations or flight instructing (for which they would earn a salary).

My first flight instructor majored in “aviation business” at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. He wanted to be an airline pilot and got a position as a dispatcher with one of the major cargo carriers. He had hoped to get into their flying positions, but for whatever reason was unable to do so. He was lucky to have an aviation related position already, but had that not been the case he would have been out of luck.

I’m not a big fan of aviation colleges in general. Places like Purdue, Univ. of North Dakota, Florida Inst. of Tech., Embry-Riddle, etc. have high tuition for out of state students (in the case of the publics, the privates are high for everyone). The flight training fees in these schools are significantly higher than one can get at a local flight school at a local airport. The FAA certificates and ratings you get are the same regardless of where you learned to fly.

In summary, it is important to have something marketable on which to fall back in case the flying career does not work out, which it doesn’t in a not insignificant number of cases. Engineering is certainly a viable choice, but other marketable fields are viable as well (accounting, etc for example).