Cashing in on Useless Agriculture Degrees

I'm a proud alumnus of Oklahoma State Animal Science. Involvement in the College of Agriculture programs continues to pay off.
I’m a proud alumnus of Oklahoma State Animal Science. Involvement in the College of Agriculture programs continues to pay off.

Every once in a while, a new report comes out that predicts growth or decline in various industries or product markets. Groups supported by the outcome usually proclaim the report as the latest and greatest news, opposing groups usually dismiss reports for their fallacies, and media outlets are looking for a chance to gain the largest viewing audience.

Agriculture audiences find ourselves on both sides of the aisle when such reports are released. In 2011, I wrote about a report from The Daily Beast, claiming several food and farm related college programs to be among the “20 Most Useless Degrees” – Horticulture (No. 2), Agriculture (No. 3), Nutrition (No. 10), and Animal Science (No. 20). Regarding the same report, Andy Vance pointed out the need and relevancy of agricultural degree programs considering the expected growth and demand for global agricultural products in the next 40 years.

Then, again in 2012, Yahoo Education came out with a new story citing the National Association of Colleges and Employers‘ (NACE) 2012 Job Outlook study. In this story, University degrees from agriculture programs ranked as the No. 1 most useless degree, followed by Animal Science and Horticulture, numbers 4 and 5, respectively.

Fast forward to 2015, where do agriculture degree programs rank among the press and media?

Agriculture Degrees Cited Among Highest Paying in 2015

Image via USA Today
Image via USA Today

In the past few weeks, USA Today cited the areas of Agriculture and Natural Resources among some of the highest expected starting salaries (averaging over $51,000) and lifetime earnings (more than $2.6 million) for 2015 college graduates. Those are some fairly exciting numbers when you consider agriculture is lined up next to the likes of engineers, computer scientists, Math and Science programs, and Business majors.

What makes an Agriculture graduate successful?

When taking a look at the hiring landscape, employers are looking for certain characteristics that make a quality hire into a successful employee. As identified by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), these important attributes include:

  • Problem-solving ability
  • Initiative
  • Analytic/quantitative skills
  • Verbal communication skills
  • Leadership
  • Work Ethic
  • Teamwork
  • Written communication skills

Fortunately, for most students enrolled in university and college agriculture and natural resources programs, these attributes are deeply instilled in their lives and course work. Students who are actively engaged in university Agriculture programs often extend their college experiences well-beyond the classroom.

Those who are involved in college leadership programs, judging teams and industry/skills-related clubs will more often than not rank among the top recruiting prospects when employers seek future employees. If you want to set yourself apart for opportunities beyond college, become an engaged student and diversify your skill set and experience outside the classroom.

It does not matter if the media reports demise or demand for agriculture degree programs in their next story. We can take pride that our job fields will be in demand. As agriculture works to sustainably feed a global population of 9 billion people by the year 2050, we can be confident for the opportunity to use our skill sets.

Whether it be economics, business, education, advocacy, communications, biology, nutrition, physiology, or any number of other concentrations students have the opportunity to study in today’s university agriculture programs, know there will be a place for our role in Agriculture fields today, tomorrow, and many years down the road.


  1. While I appreciate the columnist’s perspective (I too, come from an ag background), I can tell you that agriculture degrees ain’t happening.

    I took my M.S. in Agribusiness over 20 years ago. I worked hard, earned a 4.00 GPA, and wrote a thesis. During my degree program I won admission and a scholarship to a competitive training program in a “critical” language. This was in addition to years of work experience in agriculture and a year teaching.

    After graduating, I couldn’t find employment. I applied for entry-level positions, including ag. analyst banking jobs at $20,000/year. I wound up in part-time unrelated work which persisted for years. Many of my peers from the program wound up in similar circumstances. One (with an accounting degree as well) became a permanent substitute teacher. Another (4.00 GPA with native Spanish) took a job sweeping up at a Greyhound station. Most of my work over the last decade really didn’t require even a high school degree. My career is a joke, but I’m not laughing.

    Since I have added quantitative (differential equations, statistics) and computing skills. Most recently I added college courses in chemistry and biology. The return on all these has been negative – I have spent more money taking these courses than my earnings have justified. I have been employed in agribusiness since, but only through family and at the very lowest level. Because this can’t last, I am trying to get into a different line of work.

    This kind of shortage shouting is really about universities looking for something to sell, and government looking to obscure dismal employment numbers by dispensing hope. “The hot careers are in computer science! The hot careers are in STEM! The hot careers are in petroleum engineering!” All of these are demonstrable lies – the US has imported more code jockeys than there are programming jobs, only 1-in-3 STEM graduates actually works in science, technology or engineering, and the petroleum engineering graduates are learning what a “speculative bubble” is. Employers in many industries game the job market, and have the appalling habit of claiming employment needs that they have absolutely no intention of following through on. Why hire someone with an agribusiness degree, when you can hire a business school graduate instead?

    Is agriculture any different? I always used to tell myself that people have to eat. But I have learned – the hard way – that just because there may be a real need for something, doesn’t mean that there’s any opportunity there. What IS likely, is that fewer people will work in agriculture in the future than are working in ag at present, under increasingly punitive regulation and in increasingly combative conditions, thanks to an adversely “educated” public and a hostile government.

    1. Finally someone who gets it. As a recent crop and soil science grad i I am infuriated by all these articles saying “Need a job!!! Get a degree in ag! Employers can’t fill all the jobs!”. Sigh.

  2. I earned a MS degree from a top Ag school in 2001 and other than a job right out of college as a conservation specialist working for a soil and water conservation district that only lasted six months before state funding for the job got cut by the Governor and I got laid off I have never worked in my field. I have struggled to find employment ever since. In fact I have only been employed for 6 of the 16 years since I finished graduate school. I finally gave up on finding work in my field and joined the Army but after only a few years I was separated from the military when I developed a medical issue.
    Honestly the only thing that really saved me from ending up homeless and living on the street was that I inherited the family farm. The farm was nowhere near large enough for me to make a living farming it, but due to the rapid urbanization of the surrounding area during the real estate boom of the early 2000s its value suddenly ballooned from a couple hundred thousand dollars when I inherited it to several million dollars when the county ran water and sewer out there. Being unemployed I could not afford to pay the taxes on it anymore so I really no choice but to sell the place to a developer. The farm is now growing McMansions which makes me sad, and although I really miss the farming life, I invested the money I got for the place in the stock market and I am able to live quite comfortably off the dividends.
    My advice to any kid coming out of high school considering studying agriculture would be this. Unless you have a family farming operation that is large enough to earn a living on that you can step right into after college forget agriculture and go into a field with higher paying jobs. Forget all of this talk about STEM as well. The fields where they money is are Finance, Accounting, and Medicine. Realistically If you are smart enough to earn a degree in animal science you are probably smart enough to go into a pre-med program and go on to medical school and become a Physician. If you are smart enough to earn a degree in agricultural economics you are smart enough to go into accounting or finance and get a job as a corporate executive, or as a banker on Wall Street.
    Go where the money is and it damn sure ain’t in agriculture unless you are a top executive at John Deere, AGCO, Case New Holland Industrial, Archer Daniels Midland, Con Agra, Monsanto, Tyson, Perdue, Smithfield, or one of the handful of big multi-national corporations that control the global agriculture industry. A degree in finance or accounting just might get you there, an agriculture degree probably won’t.

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