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]
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!