Is a Degree in Agriculture Useless?


Yahoo just published a story by Terence Loose, “College Majors that are Useless,” and it listed Agriculture degrees as the most useless.  Horticulture and Animal Science also made the top (or bottom) five, together with Fashion Design and Theater.  Ouch.

Unemployable? (Photo by Jack Dykinga, USDA Agricultural Research Service)

One basis of this claim the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) 2012 Job Outlook study, compiled from a survey of employers (Loose says “almost 1,000 employers,” though NACE states the study included 244 respondents) regarding their future hiring plans.  Also included were job projections from 2008-2018 from the Department of Labor as well as numbers of degrees awarded in 2008-2009 from Newsweek‘s similarly-titled slideshow, “20 Most Useless Degrees,” which put Ag as #3 behind Journalism (oh the irony) and Horticulture.

From the DoL numbers, farm manager opportunities are expected to drop by 5% between 2008 and 2018, a cut of roughly 64,000 out of 1.2M positions.  Over that same period, the nation might see 125,000 more brand-new college graduates with Agriculture degrees.

Why bother? (Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service)

A few alibis:

1) I don’t dispute these numbers.  But if you think “Farm Manager” is the only career opportunity for a person with an Ag degree, you don’t understand Ag… which may be the problem here.  And according to Michelle Singletary’s recent Washington Post editorial, and another from the NYT, Ag is currently one of the degrees with the lowest unemployment rate in the US.  But I am not going to discuss that further… now… I don’t think…

2) [late edit] Aw heck, why not… another article by Purdue and the USDA states, “During 2010–15, five percent more college graduates with expertise in agricultural and food systems, renewable energy, and the environment will be needed when compared to 2005-10…”

3) I don’t have an Ag degree, and actually feel a bit slighted because NACE, DoL, and Newsweek didn’t even bother to address the prospects for the millions of us with our undergrad degrees in mathematics and Masters from seminary.

4) I’m not going to rant about our sad environment in which participate in, understand, and value agriculture so little… Well, I am going to rant, but not today.

Instead, I want to take some issue with the angle from which these articles address the data.

The idea fronted by Loose and Newsweek is that these degrees are valueless because there are so many more degrees being awarded than are needed in the job market.  Now this argument would make a lot of sense if we were talking about printing money.  If we were, I’d recommend What Happened to Penny Candy? as a superb foundation upon which to start the conversation.

About $90,000 pictured - a bit more than what a 4-year degree will cost you for in-state tuition, books, fees, and living expenses at a public university. It won't even cover tuition at the average private school. (Image from Braintrack.com)

If a degree is simply an asset – a piece of paper in which we invest in the hopes that it will provide future earnings – I’d say these articles were right on the mark.  To be honest, this is how some folks have looked at a college degree for many years – spend (or worse, borrow), tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a couple words one can put on a resume that will provide a healthy ROI.  Scarily, others buy one of these “investments” without considering the potential ROI at all.

However, that’s not what a degree is, especially today.  If you merely invest $120,000 on a degree from the other end of the NACE spectrum, say Chemical Engineering, and complete the requirements for that degree, you may have more opportunities after graduation than your classmate that did the same but earned a degree in Agriculture.  However, you won’t have nearly the opportunities of a person in any degree program who invested not only his or her money, but other assets such as time (building experiences in focused internships, employment and volunteerism) and relationships (what we call “networking” these days).

These articles also ignore a good portion of the NACE report, addressing only the degrees, not the skills employers are looking for in this highly competitive environment.  You can click here for a digest of those, but they include the ability to “work in a team,” “make decisions and solve problems,” “communicate inside and outside the organization,” and “influence others.”  You don’t learn this stuff in a book.  Those skills, friends, are the difference between a mere “education” and a comprehensive “training” experience, or as one of my seminary professors put it, “information” vs. “formation.”

If we think of a degree as simply a financial investment, a ticket to a job, we are missing the boat.  Well, actually, we won’t miss all the boats – we’ll be on one with the vast majority of other college graduates who act similarly – but unfortunately it is more likely to be one named Titanic or Costa Concordia than Mayflower.

All Aboard! (Image by Carnival Cruise Lines)

What if, instead, we looked at the degree program from a more multifaceted approach?  Certainly we should consider the financial costs, future opportunities, and potential return on investment.  However, we also should consider what we are willing to invest in time, effort, and relationships, and how we can use the years in which we invest these assets to distinguish ourselves from the crowds.

For sure, some college degrees are more marketable than others, but I like the approach of Singletary’s Washington Post editorial better.

“Too many students aren’t sure what job they could get after four, five or even six years of studying a certain major and racking up education loans. Many aren’t getting on-the-job training while they are in school or during their semester or summer breaks. As a result, questions about employment opportunities or what type of job they have the skills to attain are met with blank stares or the typical, ‘I don’t know.’ …A college education is not an investment in your future if you are taking out loans just for the college experience. It’s not an investment if you’re not coupling your education with training. It’s not an investment if you aren’t researching which fields are creating good-paying jobs now and 30 years from now.”

Is an Agriculture degree useless?  Yes, just like all the rest.  Is investment put towards earning an Agriculture degree useless?  Well, that depends on what you’re willing to invest.

[Edit… this article has understandably sparked a bit of “interest” in the Agvocate blogosphere.  As I come across some of the more interesting responses, I’ll link them below]

Agriculture Now

Allen Levine (Huffington Post)

“I Studied Agriculture and I Have a Job” Facebook Page (Over 3,000 members in less than a day!)

Figuring out the Plot

Economix Blog at NYT – This one shows that recent Ag grads have the LOWEST unemployment rate for all except those with education and health-related degrees!

Feel free to suggest more!

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15 responses to this post.

  1. […] backgrounds in agriculture like myself took to the internet to voice their reaction to the article (Is a Degree in Agriculture Useless? and Are College Degrees Surrounding Food and Animals and Plants Really “Useless”?). In […]

    Reply

  2. Strange since there is a renewed interest in farming and homesteading. Some are fads but I believe that there are many individuals who are demanding safer, more nutritious, fresher foods and are willing to contract with small farms for community-grown foods. Smaller farms mean more people working — and without the high demand for mechanized equipment that the larger industrial ag firms use.

    Of course, seeing that the noted articles are from the WaPo and NY makes me wonder if there isn’t an agenda behind this. Personally, I’d want to dig deeper into the sources of the stats used since there are so many government actions against the farming community now.

    My undergrad degree was in Computer Science and I used it, but about half of the classes were theoretical courses and the computer industry wanted working experience on very specific computer systems. My most practical course was a 6-hour intense English writing course. The other coursework that paid-for-itself was Russian. Go figure!

    And I’m still not convinced that a college degree is the save-all for everyone. Here’s a fun fact: Three of the most famous Presidents were educated men, but possessed no official college or university degree recognizing their intelligence — they were important enough to earn their places on dollar bills commemorating their legacies.

    (Glad I had some time this morning and found your blog via my own!)

    Reply

  3. I grew up on farm and watched my grandfather do it without a college a degree. I wish now that when I was in school that it was something that was encouraged and not looked down upon instead of pushing the more glamourous degrees like business, teaching and anything that was supposed to make you big bucks. Think about it, those are the ones that are taking a big hit right now.

    I think it’s funny that Glen Beck about 2 years ago was talking about how the average age of farmers today are between 55-62 years old and will be retiring within the next 10 year. He went on to talk about how there just aren’t enough kids in college or high school taking the ag classes to replace them. So what will happen to farming?

    Some of the blog posts that I have written with the most number of visits have been on ag classes in the homeschool. I have met so many people that are interested in it, whether for hobby or for a future career, it’s been really exciting. Go farming!

    P.S. My youngest daughter (13 years old) loves the idea of being a farmer, is currently taking ag classes and is planning on being a drama/theater major!

    Reply

  4. Reblogged this on Girlfriend's Guide 2 Homeschooling and commented:
    Great article on the state of Ag Classes in America

    Reply

  5. […] Is a Degree in Agriculture Useless, by Flying T Ranch blog. […]

    Reply

  6. Flying T, how big is your soap box? Can I stand on it as well? If I share my thoughts here you will have a full second article on your hand and on your page. Suffice it to say that those individuals and families who live off the land, to any small or large extend and regardless of their actual education background, will surely understand and share your sentiments. You speak for many. Have you ever considered being an economics professor? As in economics = common sense and clear vision? Awesome piece of deep thinking and very respectfully expressed I might add. Thank you.

    Reply

  7. Thanks all for the generous comments and encouragement!

    Reply

  8. […] Is a Degree in Agriculture Useless? asks The Flying T Ranch. The commentary that ensues is poignantly heartfelt and down to earth. Individuals and families who live off the land, to any small or large extend and regardless of their actual education background, will surely relate to many of the sentiments expressed herein. The author speaks for many in this truly respectfully expressed and honest commentary. […]

    Reply

  9. […] Word for Today Archive « Is a Degree in Agriculture Useless? […]

    Reply

  10. I don’t know if this has been said already, but when considering the worth (or worthlesness) of a degree, it also has to be taken into account the amount of people engaged in that particular field.
    What’s the percentage of people engaged in agriculture? 2% of the general population?
    How many people are involved in service industry? 50%?
    (The numbers are arbitrary, please correct me.)
    Only based on these facts it would seem as if people shouldn’t get into agriculture since the demand for service industry is so much bigger.
    On the other hand – it doesn’t make a degree in agriculture worthless. Far from it. As said in the post, people with Ag. degree are more likely to get a job, because most of them have got into agriculture with a clear vision of what they will do with it.
    Besides, you can never have enough people who know how to grow crops. And, if somebody teaches you how to do it even better, I’m all for it.

    Reply

  11. Thanks for stopping by to read about New Creation Farm (http://sustainabilitea.wordpress.com/2012/08/26/a-new-creation/). My grandparents had a farm in Nebraska where my dad grew up and my brother and I spent many wonderful hours, but my dad went into accounting. We still have the farm, albeit with tenants and I’m happy we do. I realize that since we’re not actual farmers, we just a small part of the process but at least our farm is still a small, family farm–it just has several families involved. 🙂 I’m encouraged by the fact that so many younger people are going back to farming, although not necessarily on traditional farms but on many smaller, organic, sustainable farms. It gives me great hope! All the best to you and yours and please stop by again. Perhaps you’d enjoy some memories of our farm: http://sustainabilitea.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/down-on-the-farm-the-first-part/ and http://sustainabilitea.wordpress.com/2012/08/11/down-on-the-farm-the-second-part/.

    Reply

  12. Awesome blog! I totally agree that the relationships I’ve made and the experiential learning I participated in during my 4 years are benefitting me way more than the degree itself.

    Reply

  13. I have a masters degree in Avian Sciences (basically, poultry science) and I don’t think it has helped me much, except for the fact that I got a lot of experience handling animals that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Now that i have my own growing farm/homestead, I’m not afraid to grab a hen and do whatever needs to be done. However, I work in accounts payable at a bank as my day job, so I’m not sure the animal handling experience was really worth the $20k I’m still paying for.
    I went into the degree program because I was interested in birds, not with the intent of pursuing a career. Probably not the best move, but it does make for interesting conversation at parties, I guess.

    Reply

    • I think you bring up a good point. College is an expensive experience, and you need to consider that cost and what benefit you’ll get out of it before making that type of investment. At UNH, a 4-year degree at the in-state rate might run you $80k with room and board.

      Some people have the money to buy an $80k sports car. Others might buy an old truck and tractor and put most of the rest as a downpayment on a farm.

      Reply

  14. Sh49 replied “You couldn’t make a living if you had a large mortgage or rent to pay”.
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    your main supply of water and for irrigating
    landscapes.

    Reply

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