The economics of ag school
Jessica Roland recently spent four years at the University of Missouri in Columbia, her hometown. MU worked out great for her—she graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in food science and immediately landed a job with Danisco USA Inc., one of the world’s largest food ingredient companies.
Quade Bigler didn’t plan to attend college, but he recently entered his second year at State Fair Community College (SFCC) in Sedalia, where he’s majoring in agriculture. He’s glad he decided to give it a try.
“You can’t get a good job without an education,” said Bigler.
Bigler grew up on a beef operation near Lowry City in southwestern Missouri. He lives with his parents and commutes to SFCC, which he chose over a four-year university because “It’s cheaper, it’s a lot closer to home, and I can keep my job.” After he earns an associate’s degree, he’s set his sights on a bachelor’s degree in agribusiness management, and a career managing a retail agribusiness.
Roland wasn’t raised on a farm. “I’ve always loved science and cooking, and food science gave me the opportunity to put both together,” she said.
Bigler and Roland faced key questions that prospective students should consider:
• What do various college options cost?
• What’s the long-term value of a degree?
• Should you save money by attending a community college and living at home, or should you shell out for a four-year university?
• What do employers want?
Eventually, Bigler hopes to farm part-time, so he’s addressing an additional issue—does college help if you want to farm
What does it cost?
Comparing costs may help determine your best return on investment. According to Zora Mulligan, executive director of the Missouri Community College Association, executive director of the Missouri Community College Association, the average cost at one of Missouri’s 12 community colleges ran $2,500 for the 2010-11 school year, less than the $2,700 national average for community colleges. Tuition at SFCC, where Bigler attends, totals about $2,200 annually.
By comparison, undergraduate tuition at the University of Missouri for Roland, not including room and board, was $8,500 last year. Other area universities ranged from $6,228 at Kansas State University to $9,070 at Purdue University in Indiana. Adding room and board can double the cost, even at community colleges with residence halls.
The University of Missouri’s Bryan Garton admitted that the cost of higher education has increased substantially over the past few years. Garton, associate dean at MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, explained how students can get the best bang for their buck. “Today’s students need to listen to their advisors more than ever,” he said. “Enrolling in a class that does not count toward your degree can be a $1,000 error. If you skip class one day, you’re throwing away about $20."
Rising costs means that two-thirds of college seniors graduate with loans, with an average debt load of $24,000, according to the Project on Student Debt.
Enrollment is booming within ag programs at five land-grant colleges in our region. Nationally, Mulligan reports that community college enrollment is growing faster than universities. “The economy is a major reason,” she said. More parents are facing financial hardships and find community colleges affordable for their kids. More students are interested in getting into the workforce right away.
Students in Missouri may be better off than some. State community and four-year colleges waived tuition increases over the past two academic years, and limited increases by a maximum of $5 per credit hour for this year.
“We’re seeing a growth in enrollment from out-of-state freshmen—many of them because of rising costs in places like Illinois,” Garton said. That’s despite the fact that tuition for out-of-state residents runs about twice as high as for state residents at MU and most other universities.
What’s the long-term value?
The up-front costs of college make up just part of the equation. As Quade Bigler decided, “It may cost a little now, but it sure will pay off in the future.”
Research by the College Board shows the long-term payoff for a degree continues to rise. Median earnings of full-time workers with bachelor’s degrees hit $55,700 in 2008—$21,900 more than for those with just high school degrees. After 11 years of work, college graduates’ higher earnings compensated for their years out of the work force and for student loans. In addition, those with degrees were twice as likely to keep a job, even during the recession.
Another study by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that the higher the degree, the more it pays off. In 2010, the median weekly earnings for people with a bachelor’s degree were $1,038, compared to $767 for those with an associate’s degree, and $626 for those with a high-school diploma. Unemployment rates were 5.4 percent for those with a bachelor’s, 7.0 percent for an associate’s, and 10.3 percent for those with just a high school diploma. For more information, visit www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.
Brian Meyer, director of college relations for Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, brings the statistics down to the hourly level. “A report by Iowa Workforce Development, looking at Iowa 2010 mean hourly wages by education level, found those with bachelor’s degrees or higher earned $31.74, those with postsecondary education earned $21.34, and those with high school diplomas or less earned $12.87,” Meyer said. “The message was clear: Higher education equals greater earning potential.”
At the same time, a recent report by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education reinforces the contention that not everyone is cut out for college, and not every job requires a college degree. Just 30 percent of Americans earn a bachelor’s degree by age 27. “While the United States is expected to create 47 million jobs in the 10 years ending in 2018, only a third of those jobs will require a bachelor’s degree,” according to the report. “Almost as many jobs—some 30 percent—will only require an associate’s degree or post-secondary occupational credential.”
Where should you begin?
Whether to attend a two- or a four-year college doesn’t have to be an either-or choice. Some, like Bigler, start out at a community college and transfer to a four-year university.
Bigler liked the idea of starting at a smaller college. “There were only 48 people in my high school graduating class,” he said. “SFCC’s ag department is really good, but it’s small, and it feels comfortable to me.” He couldn’t ask for a better college advisor than he had at SFCC last year, he added. Students and teachers get along.
“Community colleges can better prepare students from small communities for a big university,” said Bigler’s advisor, Brad Driskill. “There’s less culture shock.” He added that community college students gain more contact with teachers and benefit from smaller classes. For 2010-2011, Driskill said, 96 students enrolled in SFCC’s agriculture program. About half plan to transfer to a four-year college.
David Nowland, agricultural instructor at North Central Missouri College in Trenton, said that two-thirds of students there go on to a four-year degree program. He brings up another consideration—will the school accept your transfer credits?
“We have agreements with Northwest Missouri State University and the University of Missouri,” Nowland said. “They reviewed what we teach and allow many of our courses to transfer as course equivalents at their institutions.”
Not all students have the grades or test scores needed to gain acceptance to top universities, and community colleges may be their best option. Some will finish in two years, while others will boost their grades in the hope of qualifying for a four-year school.
Take the case of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M University in College Station, the largest ag school in the nation. Alan Sams, executive assistant dean of the college, reported that the college receives two to three applicants for every seat available. About one-third of all students transfer in from other universities or community colleges.
Like Texas A&M, MU doesn’t track whether incoming transfer students come from a community college or another university. But overall, the number of transfers is growing at MU as well. Still, Garton doesn’t see a big trend toward students attending community college first. But Iowa State and Kansas State do see such a trend.
“It’s not an us versus them situation,” Meyer said. “Iowa State works hard to develop relationships with community college partners to ensure smooth transitions. We offer unique services for transfer students that many other universities don’t. We are more focused on student success than how they came to campus.”
Overall, Mulligan said, community colleges take a different approach to education. “Universities are more research oriented, and community colleges have a more practical focus,” she said. In addition, community college students are more diverse, with more adult attendees.
Do universities give you a head start?
Jessica Roland always knew she wanted to attend a four-year university—preferably Mizzou. She lived in a dorm her freshman year to get a taste of campus life. “MU’s a big school, but it didn’t feel like it,” she said. “The food science program is smaller than at some other schools, and the people really care about your success.”
Roland credits an internship as a big part of the reason that she found a job immediately. She interned with a food ingredient company in St. Louis, where she helped develop ice cream flavors. (Who wouldn’t love a job where you get to taste ice cream?)
Garton cited competition for internships as one reason that some students start at a university—they’ll get a head start in making friends and seeking international study programs and internships. “Students are making decisions earlier because that’s what it takes to pursue your career aspirations,” he said. “Just a degree won’t get you the job. You have to have experience, which usually means multiple internships.”
Gary Pierzynski, interim dean of the College of Agriculture at Kansas State University, offers a warning: “In agriculture, the quality of the courses at a community college can vary considerably depending on the instructor hired.”
Future students should carefully weigh the pros and cons. As Sams said, “The environment is more challenging in a big four-year school. You have to be more independent. There are also more extracurricular activities available, such as working in a research lab.”
What do employers want?
As Roland demonstrates, not all ag majors come from the farm. Last year, just 12 percent of the MU ag school’s incoming freshmen came from a production agriculture background.
If you’d like to farm, ask yourself if you want to join the family farm operation after graduation, or if you want to pursue another career, at least at first. Many family operations can’t support another income. And as farms get larger, the number of commercial farms in the U.S. continues to shrink, along with farming opportunities.
Prospects improve if you pursue an ag-related job off the farm. Our university experts report a rise in the number of ag-related jobs. Texas A&M’s ag college recruits students with non-ag backgrounds to fill all the jobs available in the pipeline—especially in the ag sciences.
“There are jobs out there that students don’t know about,” Sams said. “We have jobs waiting for almost all of our graduates.” Top jobs await biochemistry, ag engineering, and agribusiness majors—especially for those going into futures trading or willing to work overseas in places like Beijing.
K-State’s top-earning degrees are in bakery science and management, food science and ag technology management. “As a rule of thumb, the better-paying jobs are ones that have the student working closer to the consumer or closer to the basic sciences,” Pierzynski said. “But starting salary isn’t the best reason to select a major. Students should study something they’re passionate about.”
We asked the St. Louis-based Monsanto what leading agribusinesses look for in young applicants. With $9 billion in assets and 21,000 employees worldwide, Monsanto is one of the world’s largest agribusinesses. Michele Holton, chief diversity officer and global director of employment branding and university relations at Monsanto, reported that from May 2010 to May 2011, Monsanto hired 750 new employees in the U.S., including 100 to 150 recent college graduates.
“Monsanto has a wide variety of hiring needs…from researchers to field sales representatives to accountants,” Holton said. “We always look for a larger pipeline of scientific students for both the laboratory and field and particularly in the agronomy, plant, crop and soil sciences.” Most of Monsanto’s college hires are from four-year or advanced degree programs. “However, we have had some success hiring some entry-level technicians with associate degrees,” Holton added. Monsanto finds most graduates well prepared, but looks for skills you can’t always gain in the classroom, including communication, leadership and teamwork.
With about 1,300 full-time, year-round corporate employees in Missouri and surrounding states, MFA Incorporated doesn’t have as many openings for new grads as Monsanto. Still, Bob Irish, MFA’s HR manager, said that while MFA has hired custom applicators with two-year degrees, the cooperative generally looks for four-year grads for management and sales positions. “Some in these positions don’t have a four-year degree, but it’s becoming more important for those looking at promotion down the road,” he said.
What if you want to farm?
If you plan to farm, Mulligan recommends at least an associate’s degree. “The technical qualities of what’s required on the farm are different today,” she said. “More science and math are involved, and more high-tech equipment.”
MU’s Garton bristles when we ask if a student needs a four-year degree if he or she “just” plans to farm. “I grew up on a family farm, and I thought I’d go back, but I never did,” he said. If you want to farm, he recommends a degree in ag economics, ag systems management, animal or plant science, or a combination.
“You might get by with a two-year degree if you’re just planning to farm 100 acres on weekends,” said Sams. “But if you’re running a comprehensive agribusiness, you need a broad understanding of the commodities you raise, input costs, markets, global demand and politics. Farming’s complex, and two years are a little quick to squeeze all that in.”
Meyer added that cash flows for many farmers exceed six figures, and you need problem-solving and critical-thinking skills to succeed.
Jay Akridge, dean of Purdue Agriculture, puts it this way: “Many jobs on the farm for which a high school education was at one time enough now demand a two-year degree. I would never say that everyone must have a four-year degree to own or manage a farm business. But we sure feel it gives you a leg up in a competitive world.”
If you already farm or work at another job, online courses might sound attractive. They’re on the rise, but they’re generally not replacing traditional classrooms. “Online courses are mostly targeted at students who would otherwise not have the opportunity to take college courses,” said Pierzynski. “Being on campus provides many more opportunities for networking, leadership development and undergraduate research.”
Iowa State’s ag school offers two online undergrad certificates, and fielded 2,200 online course registrations last year. “2010-11 saw more than a 20 percent gain in online registration each semester,” reported Meyer. “The attraction is the flexibility it can provide for working students.” But students must be self-motivated and organized, which explains why most online university courses are geared toward grad students.
What does the future hold?
The coming years look prosperous for students pursuing ag careers, but college costs will remain high. Over the past decade, tight budgets forced states to cut higher education funding. In the past, Garton estimates that the state provided about two thirds of MU’s funding, and now it’s about a third. “I don’t see it turning around,” he said. State support of Purdue dropped to 13 percent last year.
Universities are cutting back. MU isn’t filling positions. Texas A&M laid off employees. Community colleges are hiring adjunct versus full-time professors. “State budget cuts have created difficulties, but they’ve also forced us to increase efficiencies such as sharing services and classes with other colleges,” Mulligan said.
Garton suggests that students save money by taking college credit courses while in high school. “Students are coming in with an average of 12 credits,” he said. “Not all will count toward your degree, but the credit hours are relatively less expensive.”
Take a tip from Roland, who rounded up several scholarships to help her through MU. Whether you attend a community college or a university, millions of dollars remain available, based on financial need, merit, diversity, leadership or geography. Akridge reported that 77 percent of Purdue students who filled out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid ended up with some type of assistance, and in 2010-2011, about 36 percent of Purdue undergrads were awarded needs-based scholarships. Most colleges provide grants and work-study programs, and some offer funds for transfer students and studies abroad.
Businesses and other organizations also offer scholarships. MFA Incorporated provides scholarships to more than 300 graduating high school seniors each year, and has made more than $11 million available to students over the last 50 years. For more information, visit mfa-inc.com and click on “youth.”