Picking from the best aerospace engineering schools does not have to be rocket science. Indeed, in aerospace engineering programs, rocket science comes after you enroll.
In this robust field, there is no shortage of aerospace engineering schools and aerospace engineering programs to choose from. And while choosing the right school for your talents and aspirations is not rocket science, the sheer number of choices and the many factors you must consider can make for an overwhelming selection process.
We’re here to make it easier for you. In this guide, you’ll learn more about this discipline, different degrees in aerospace engineering, and the best aerospace engineering schools.
What Is Aerospace Engineering?
In an academic context, aerospace engineering is an umbrella term that covers a vast array of math, physics, and practical education across two distinct engineering subfields: aeronautical engineering (aero-) and astronautical engineering (-space).
The presence of nautical makes these terms a little confusing. But don’t worry. Even though the etymology of nautical relates to sailing, as an aerospace engineer you won’t be launching airplanes and spaceships on the high seas. Here, the meaning of nautical refers to the science of navigation more broadly.
This expanded sense of nautical offers a window into what aerospace engineers do. We tend to take air and space travel for granted because human beings have already conquered these frontiers. But when you stop to think about it, the ability to build vessels capable of flying safely through the Earth’s atmosphere or in outer space is truly an engineering marvel.
And because the physics of navigation varies according to the composition of the surrounding air, these two types of engineers do slightly different things. Whereas specialists in aeronautics design, build, implement, maintain, and enhance aircraft, astronautical engineers design, construct, implement, maintain, and enhance spacecraft.
Since the two curricula overlap, astronautical and aeronautical engineers are typically housed under the same aerospace engineering program. Whether you’re more interested in space flight or aviation, your training will probably cover the fundamentals of both. In any event, you can expect heavy doses of physics, calculus, and computer science, both theoretical and applied.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for an aerospace engineer in 2019 was $116,500. This is just one indication of the immense value that aerospace engineers bring to society.
With an aerospace engineering degree, you can use your knowledge to solve countless real-world problems, from designing faster and more efficient machines, to advancing autonomous vehicle technology, to finding creative applications for medicine.
The possibilities are endless.
Types of Aerospace Engineering Degree Programs
Maybe you’re here because the topic just sounds interesting and you’re exploring your collegiate options. Or maybe you’re one of the many aerospace engineering majors already out there and you’re researching graduate programs to see how you can take your learning to the next level.
Either way, we’ve got you covered. Degrees in aerospace engineering fall into three basic categories. Let’s explore them below.
Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Engineering in Aerospace Engineering
If you intend to pursue a career in engineering, there’s no substantive difference between these two types of bachelor’s degrees. As you’re applying to schools, just make sure to research the process of being admitted to your chosen aerospace engineering program.
Most universities and institutes that offer aerospace engineering programs have a College of Engineering embedded within their institutional structure. Because these programs are competitive, many engineering schools will require you to apply directly to them as part of your application to the university. Other Colleges of Engineering only accept applications from students who are already enrolled in the affiliated university.
Pay attention to these differences, and make sure you meet all the minimum requirements before you apply. You should have a backup plan for your bachelor’s degree in case the aerospace engineering program at your university fills up.
Master of Science, Master of Engineering, or Master of Science in Engineering
One or more graduate programs in aerospace engineering may be desirable depending on your circumstances and goals.
While there are plenty of good-paying jobs in aerospace engineering, a master’s degree will improve your versatility on the job market and accelerate your career trajectory.
Covering advanced topics in a compressed time frame, an MS in Aerospace Engineering will typically take between one and two years to complete.
Doctor of Philosophy or Doctor of Science
Not for the faint of heart, a doctoral degree in aerospace engineering will take two to four years to complete after you have obtained your master’s degree. Be aware that some PhD programs require a separate application. However, at the end of some master’s programs, you will have the option to continue your studies in a PhD program.
These super-specialized courses of study are designed for aerospace engineers who are less interested in applying what they’ve learned than researching advanced topics and contributing new academic knowledge to the discipline.
How to Choose an Aerospace Engineering School
Unfortunately, there is no secret sauce for choosing the right school or program. Don’t be fooled by the proliferation of rankings available on the Internet, from the gold standard US News and World Report to less name-brand publications like Best Value Schools and College Factual. Their disagreements are proof that these rankings are highly subjective.
The fact that no two rankings are the same suggests that the preference of any school over another depends on the criteria we apply and how much weight we give to each criterion.
In reality, your choice of an aerospace engineering degree program will depend on a multitude of factors: type of program, available sub-specializations, cost of tuition, fees, location, graduation rate, the average time to graduation, faculty considerations, facilities and resources, and industry connections. Every student goes to school under a different set of circumstances. The top-ranked school in any given list is not necessarily your best school.
So, consider what follows as a starting point. Any school on this list would be a great place from which to launch an aerospace engineering career.
Best Aerospace Engineering Colleges and Universities in the United States
It should come as no surprise that many of the top aerospace engineering programs are based in America. Orville and Wilbur Wright would be proud of their native country’s continued excellence in this field.
Embry Riddle Aeronautical University
This school in Daytona Beach, FL, is no day at the beach. As the most specialized school on this list, Embry Riddle appeals to aviation enthusiasts worldwide. But don’t let the name deceive you: astronautical engineering students are welcome too, with bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD programs in aerospace engineering all on offer.
Georgia Institute of Technology
Named after one of the most important figures in modern aviation, the David Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering is one of the best-funded and well-connected programs in the world. Come down to Atlanta’s Georgia Tech to get your BS, MS, or PhD and take advantage of numerous opportunities for industry-sponsored experiential learning.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Who can go wrong with MIT? Elegantly referred to as AeroAstro, this program in Cambridge, MA, prides itself on training students on all aspects of aerospace systems, from conception through operation. Many MIT grads have gone on to top jobs at NASA and in the Air Force, and its graduate programs give students thirteen engineering subfields to choose from.
Purdue University-West Lafayette
An hour’s drive northwest from Indianapolis, Purdue is a leading destination for aspiring aeronautical engineers and astronautical engineers alike. But be forewarned: Purdue requires all prospective engineering majors to apply directly to the program.
Once admitted, you’ll walk the same halls as Purdue alumnus Neil Armstrong and have a chance to work in the largest academic propulsion lab in the world. Bachelor’s students focus on one of six areas of specialization, and the well-endowed Gambaro Graduate Program offers graduate students four paths to degree completion.
Texas A&M University
Midway between Austin and Houston, Texas A&M boasts one of the most well-rounded aerospace engineering programs in the country. A dizzying assortment of over 25 labs provides BS, MS, MSE, and PhD students with access to the cutting edge of aerospace research.
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
A top aerospace engineering program is just one of the many reasons Ann Arbor is considered one of the best places to live and study in America. Not only does aeronautics have its roots in Michigan, but the university has been conducting research and educating students in this field for over 100 years. A BSE, MSE, ME, or PhD from Michigan would put you in great company.
University of Texas at Austin
The Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics is a robust operation, promising students close contact with decorated faculty. Undergraduate and graduate students alike can contribute research to the Center for Space Research or the Center for Aeromechanics Research, two of UT-Austin’s stellar interdisciplinary facilities.
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
More commonly known as Virginia Tech, the school sits four hours southwest of Washington, DC. Virginia Tech’s unique program combines the study of aeronautics and astronautics with comparative training in ocean engineering.
Offering hybrid curricula for bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral students, as well as an accelerated master’s program for undergraduates, Virginia Tech puts the fluid in fluid dynamics.
Wichita State University
Whether you’re looking for a BS, MS, or PhD, this Kansas school really shoots for the stars. One of the most affordable programs on this list, Wichita State is a longstanding hub of aerospace engineering in the United States. A rich tradition, great industry connections, and a leading cooperative work program are all reasons to give WSU a long, hard look.
Top International Aerospace Engineering Schools
If you’re interested in exploring options outside the United States, the biggest constraint on international study, besides visa requirements, is that not all programs are conducted primarily in English.
However, below are three places outside of the American system where you can study aerospace engineering without needing to learn another language.
Delft University of Technology (Netherlands)
Never heard of Delft, Netherlands? Well, this Dutch city is home to one of the fastest-growing aerospace engineering programs in the world. Get your BS, MS, or PhD as you benefit from one of the largest aerospace-focused faculties in Europe and see what it’s like to conduct research at the world-class Delft Aerospace Structures and Materials Laboratory.
Imperial College London (United Kingdom)
What better way to experience London than to join the Department of Aeronautics at Imperial College London, the best of its kind in the United Kingdom? As the department’s name implies, the focus here is aviation science. But if aeronautics is your thing, a BS, MS, or PhD from here is as good as it gets.
University of Queensland (Australia)
Head south of the equator for a dual major in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Graduate programs here are limited, but as an undergraduate at University of Queensland, you will have industry connections like Boeing and Airbus within arm’s reach, as well as opportunities for hands-on experience at state-of-the-art facilities. Not a bad deal.
Which of These Aerospace Engineering Programs Is for You?
This list is not meant to be comprehensive, but rather a representative sample of the many good options out there. At the end of the day, your decision will come down to fit. Where you are in your life trajectory, how competitive your application is, what kinds of connections you would like to make, and how much you can afford will all factor into your process.
The landscape of aerospace engineering is vast. Use this list to better understand your own criteria, dig deeper into anything here that sparks your interest, and figure out what you need to do to make your dreams a reality.