Student Numbers in Agronomy and Crop Science in the United States: History, Current Status, and Possible Actions1

By McCallister, Dennis L.; Lee, Donald J. et al. | NACTA Journal, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Student Numbers in Agronomy and Crop Science in the United States: History, Current Status, and Possible Actions1


McCallister, Dennis L., Lee, Donald J., Mason, Stephen C., NACTA Journal


Abstract

Enrollment declines in colleges of agriculture and particularly in agronomy majors threaten the viability of these programs. One consequence is a reduction in the availability of educated professionals for the agricultural industry. This paper surveys the numbers of students receiving Bachelor's degrees in agronomy and crop science nationally and at selected universities since 1984, and makes recommendations to reverse the decline. Total number of degree recipients and their percent of total college graduates has decreased from 764 in 1984-85 (0.45% of total Bachelor's degree graduates) to 523 in 2002-03 (0.26% of total). National trends do not reflect wide variances among individual universities with a few institutions maintaining or increasing numbers of degree recipients. An open-ended survey of a group of universities verifies these quantitative trends and emphasizes that local conditions such as state demographics or the existence of distinctive majors affects enrollment. The Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln proposes several measures to enhance its enrollments: (1) Strengthen contacts with community college instructors; (2) develop Advanced Placement (AP) courses directed at upper level secondary students; and (3) add a staff member who will specialize in youth activities, including recruiting and development of outreach educational materials.

Introduction

Concerns about enrollments in undergraduate agronomy programs are not new. The period during and following the "farm crisis" of the 1980s resulted in much soul-searching on enrollment trends in higher education in agriculture and specifically in agronomy (Beyrouty and Bacon, 1986; Dalmasso, 1990). Concerns about the consequences of these declines were and still are important, including the need to maintain a supply of professionals for the agronomy industry and justifying resources for ongoing academic programs (McKenna and Brann, 1992; Reisch, 1984). Nevertheless, many of the factors involved in determining enrollments have been beyond the control of university faculty and administrators. These factors include demographic trends (declines in college-age or rural populations) and/or economic trends which make the perception of a career in agriculture less attractive.

Perceived powerlessness in the face of large-scale trends has resulted in little consensus on ways to reduce or reverse these enrollment declines. If a single, manageable cause for the declines had been identified, agronomy educators could have taken concrete measures to reverse those declines. In contrast, many, sometimes conflicting, recommendations have been made: recruit the urban student and his or her parents (Taylor, 1990); re-emphasize recruiting the rural student (McKenna and Brann, 1992; Russell, 1993); revise the curriculum to be more attractive (Bradley et al., 2003; Dalmasso, 1990); emphasize print media (Dyer et al., 1999); and most broadly of all, change the image of "agriculture as a field of study...dogged by conservative, dusty, and dull images." (Handelsman, 1992).

The intent of this paper is first, to assemble available data to provide a quantitative picture of current enrollment trends in undergraduate agronomy programs nationally as well as for specific institutions in the time period since the last "ag crisis" in the mid- to late-1980's. second, we will describe the results of a telephone survey of persons from a wide range of institutions regarding the general "health" of their agronomy and related programs and what measures they may have taken to address enrollment declines. Third, we will describe measures which have been proposed or adopted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Department of Agronomy and Horticulture to reverse its enrollment decline.

Trends: 1984-2003

A necessary starting point for any analysis of student enrollment is to find a source of data which is authoritative, that is, has been gathered with reasonably consistent methodology over the period of time of interest. …

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