Demand for ag degrees driven by students, employers | TSLN.com

Demand for ag degrees driven by students, employers

Heather Hamilton

Courtesy photo/South Dakota State UniversitySouth Dakota State University and Montana State University-Bozeman (MSU) are two western universities seeing an increase in enrollment and graduation rates for agriculture students. "We just cannot keep up with demand for graduates. Looking forward, this is a great time to be starting school," commented Nora Smith, MSU Assistant Dean for the College of Agriculture and Academic Programs.

With record-breaking enrollment and graduation numbers being posted by multiple western universities, and a high demand for graduates in both traditional and recently developed areas of study, the future appears to be bright for college graduates with a degree in agriculture.

“We currently have around 2,000 students enrolled in agriculture and biological science fields of study, and that is essentially a record-high level of enrollment in our College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences,” said Donald Marshall, South Dakota State University (SDSU) Associate Dean for Academic Programs in the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences.

“Last year’s graduating class set records as our largest ever, and our entire college has grown steadily, especially in the last three years, and that includes the College of Agriculture, which is pushing 1,000 students this fall,” added Nora Smith, Montana State University-Bozeman (MSU) Assistant Dean for the College of Agriculture and Academic programs.

From 2009-2010, overall student enrollment at MSU increased 5.4 percent, and the college’s growth continued in 2011 with over 14,000 total students enrolled – the highest number ever at MSU. Bachelor’s degrees issued also rose from 1,555 in 1999 to 1,835 in 2010, and Smith expects that number to continue to increase.

“Our numbers are up in part because the 18 to 24 year olds in this country understand that the bachelor’s degree is the gold standard these days. Despite what their career ambitions may be, the bachelor’s degree is today what the high school diploma was in the 1960s. That becomes especially true in areas like agriculture sciences. Those fields of study have become so advanced and specialized that you’re pretty much going to need four years of training regardless of your interests, and students realize that,” Smith continued.

“We are seeing a balanced growth across the college of ag, with a few relatively new programs that are growing surprisingly fast,” Smith noted. “One of those is an equine science option within the animal science major. We’re pushing 100 students this semester, and were guessing we would be at about half that number by this year, so that’s very exciting. Another newer option that will be graduating its first group in December is an interdisciplinary area of study on sustainable food and bio-energy systems, and it’s also larger than expected.”

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From 1999 to 2009, SDSU’s enrollment increased from 8,540 students to 12,376, and rose again in 2011, according to Marshall. The school’s graduation rate stayed relatively constant at around 53-54 percent, with the number of bachelor’s degrees issued rising from 1,390 in 1999 to 1,838 in 2009.

“Our agronomy major, in particular, has really grown in recent years and is in strong demand in the job market. A lot of the jobs are industry related, and involve working for companies that service the crop industries. We also offer biology, microbiology and biotechnology degrees in the College of Ag here, and those have all also really grown in recent years,” he stated.

“As people graduate in both the newer, and more established areas of study, we’re finding we cannot keep pace with the demand for them in the workforce. As we look at Baby Boomers beginning to retire, we’re seeing our graduates have the opportunity to basically name a field and have a job offer, which is a very pleasant trend we think will increase in the next five to 20 years,” explained Smith.

“A lot of our ag business or ag economics graduates are going to work in the financial sector, and who knew you could graduate in the college of agriculture and work in any bank? A lot of people are also going straight into administrative or professional positions right out of school, which is interesting to think about as a college of agriculture graduate, but that’s how it is today. There is also a continually growing demand for high school ag educators,” continued Smith of where graduates are finding employment.

Marshall added that technology is also changing the face of jobs within agriculture, listing careers in genetic technology, food safety, precision farming and technical support as examples.

“If you think about genetic technologies, or global positioning technologies, or satellite technologies, some of those things have really changed the scope of agriculture. Some of the technology that goes into seed production today is amazing, and if you look at the genetic evaluation used to make those improvements, there are a lot of new things that we’re now teaching that wouldn’t have been a part of any curriculum in the past,” he noted of the changes technology has had on both curriculums and potential careers for graduates.

“If you look at predictions that the world population will grow to nine billion people by the middle part of the century, all of those people have to eat, and there are lots of jobs connected to agriculture and life sciences that will aid in food production,” stated Marshall of another reason the future is bright for graduates with agriculture degrees.

“I think this is the generation that will see a drastic change in education trends. Today, 30-35 percent of adults have a college degree, and by 2020 I bet it will be closer to half of all adults will have a college degree. Those with an agriculture-related degree will have the opportunity to look at employment in many shapes and forms we don’t even know exist today, driven in part by technology and in part by Baby Boomers retiring. It’s a good time to be starting school,” stated Smith.

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