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Ag college enrollment supported by job market

Northwest Missouri State University ag students

Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville has seen an increase in ag student enrollment, and ag school director Rod Barr says students see a lot of opportunities in agriculture. 

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Students can study a variety of agricultural fields at the University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. 

A strong agricultural jobs market is supporting enrollment at university ag schools. University officials say students see a lot of opportunity in the career field, as well as steady need for what agriculture produces. Also, ag colleges offer students a wide variety of majors to consider.

Bryan Garton is the senior associate dean for academic programs at the University of Missouri. He says ag schools cover a wide range of fields of study, including MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

“It’s a very diverse college,” Garton says. “Just like Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, it’s going to be a very diverse college as well. Each one of our ag colleges have other colleges within them.”

Garton says MU’s ag school has 14 different degree programs, or career paths, ranging from animal science and agribusiness to biochemistry and hospitality management.

He says all ag-related degree programs have seen enrollment on the rise in recent years.

“They’re all going up,” he says.

Rod Barr serves as director of Northwest Missouri State University’s School of Agricultural Sciences. He says Northwest has seen a 10% increase in freshman enrollment for ag students, and things are feeling more normal again after the pandemic.

“We’re getting back to a sense of normalcy,” he says.

Barr says having more prospective students back on campus for in-person tours to see the ag facilities was beneficial.

“Getting those students on campus is a big deal for us,” he says.

Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has also seen increases. Associate dean for academic innovation Carmen Bain says the ag school’s enrollment and graduations have gone up, supported by the ag career outlook.

“The last few years we’ve had really strong enrollment and graduation rates,” she says. “We’ve seen a strong labor market in relation to agriculture and ag-related fields.”

CALS undergraduate enrollment was up 3.1% this fall, and new undergraduate enrollment at the ag school is up 8.5% since 2020. Retention rates are also high. Bain says students are drawn to the variety of opportunities in agriculture, and that many ag sectors are seeing strong salary increases and demand for workers.

Garton says an MU strategic plan called for 650 new students in the ag school on an annual basis. The number was at 550 a few years ago, then 580, then 634 last year, and now this year saw 687 new ag school students on the first day of the semester, with final “census day” numbers pending.

He says this reflects recruitment efforts and also that students see potential in the agriculture career field.

“We spend a lot of time, we spend a lot of resources, in educating students,” Garton says. “It’s a lot of educating pre-college students about the opportunities in agriculture in natural resources.”

The top question parents ask when visiting the university with their prospective college student is what the job outlook is like for different majors and career fields.

He says 99% of MU ag school graduates have career success within six months of graduating, defined by employment, being in the military or enrolled in graduate or professional school, such as veterinary school.

Garton says the university hosts career development days at its research centers to help high school students learn about career options in agriculture. He says even if the number of students graduating high school is down in many parts of the country, driven by flattening population in places and other factors, he says agriculture remains a good career field to sell students on.

“I know you and I are going to wear clothes, we’re going to have fuel, we’re going to have food,” Garton says.

As for which areas of study are most popular with ag students, Barr says agribusiness remains a top choice. He also says agronomy has seen an increase in interest.

“We are seeing more students going into agronomy,” he says. “The precision agriculture thing is part of that. Students are into technology.”

Bain says agribusiness consistently remains a popular major at Iowa State, and other majors generating a lot of interest from students right now include agriculture systems technology, agronomy, dairy science and agriculture studies, which can be tailored to focus on specific subjects as students desire. The ag school also added a food technology minor this past year.

“This was in response to industry demand for more workforce development,” she says.

Many Midwestern universities are located in areas that showcase the industry. Northwest is located in Maryville, the county seat of Nodaway County, a prolific agricultural county. Students can see up close the impact of agriculture in the area and at the university’s main ag building and campus farm.

“Agriculture is always going to be at the forefront for us,” Barr says.

Whichever career field college students choose, Barr says they can be advocates for the agriculture industry and help tell the story of the industry.

“We have a great story to tell,” Barr says.

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Ben Herrold is Missouri field editor, writing for Missouri Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.

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