The current generation of farmers stands among the most well-educated group ever to take up the plow.
According to a recent USDA survey, almost a quarter of all active farmers have earned undergraduate degrees. Among new farmers, the proportion of the degreed eclipses a third.
There’s little question that what you learn in an agricultural science program will translate into real-life benefits on the farm. A little knowledge, the adage goes, can take you a long way.
But the demonstrated benefits of a college education aren’t necessarily worth the costs undertaken to receive it. With tuition costs soaring, students have to make a difficult choice about whether the rewards of getting a college degree are really worth the investment. Deciding that requires weighing costs and benefits carefully.
What do you get when you enroll in a university and pursue an ag science degree?
Among all college majors, it’s one of the most practical and most employable. About one in every ten jobs in the United States is in the food industry, so there’s no shortage of demand for ag expertise. Peterson’s reports that ag scientists and engineers can expect to make $60,000 – $70,000 a year– far above the median salary for most graduates.
Because so many new farmers need to have off-farm income, a college degree can also offer alternative sources of revenue. Acting as a crop consultant, for example, could be a viable source of supplementary income.
Beyond the dollars and cents, though, attending university for ag science (or any degree!) offers a lot of intangibles. In a rapidly-changing world, being able to adapt, communicate, learn, and grow are essential skills. College isn’t the only way to get these skills, but it’s a great way to develop them.
That’s not to say these benefits are worth it, though. College students have to count the costs before diving into an ag science degree.
Those costs are high and getting higher.
A 2015 article profiling college-educated farmers in California found many of them burdened by student loan debt. The average graduate of UC Davis’s ag program then averaged almost $20,000 in loans. That’s an impediment to anyone looking to buy land or qualify for ag funding for machinery.
In fact, this is part of the reason why many new farmers consistently identify the high costs of getting land as their greatest challenge.
It’s also a time sink, delaying entrance into their own ag business by four or more years.
College isn’t for everyone. It’s an increasingly expensive proposition that delays the start of a farming career.
But for a growing proportion of the nation’s farmers, it’s still worth those costs. The knowledge and experience gained from an ag science degree compensate for initial investments. It offers degreed graduates the flexibility and adaptability that translate into career success in the long run.
Decisions about whether to undertake an ag science degree will continue to be made on an individual basis. Prospective students may find the proposition worth it–or not. They may find that active communication with an extension program or taking an occasional online class provides comparable benefits.
There is no one size fits all answer to the question of whether an ag science degree is worth the cost. And as long as farming continues to evolve, ag education progresses, and costs rise, there will be a lot to weigh in making this important decision.