What’s the Value of an Agricultural Economics Degree? The Answer: a 98.7% Chance that You’ll have a Job after Graduation

Sep. 14, 2012
You may have seen the Yahoo! News article highlighting three agricultural degrees as among the top five “College Majors That Are Useless,” which left many professionals in the agricultural sector scratching their heads, particularly recruiters and educators of students in the fields of Agribusiness and Agricultural Economics. The Yahoo! article, and several others like it, used findings from the National Association of Colleges and Employers' (NACE) 2012 Job Outlook study, which surveyed less than 1,000 employers on their future hiring plans. 
“I couldn’t make sense of the Yahoo! article,” said Professor Brian Roe, who helps direct the Agribusiness and Applied Economics major at Ohio State University. “We have constant demand from recruiters for our agribusiness graduates.” The findings from the NACE survey contrast with recent good news from the field that shows that the power of an agricultural degree is growing, and in particular the power of a generalized agricultural degree such as the study of Agribusiness or Agricultural Economics. US labor statistics show that from 2008 to 2011 the field of agriculture consistently added new jobs – during that same period total employment in the US fell by 3.5 percent. Additionally, the USDA reports that the number of agricultural exports has reached record highs, net farm income is also at its highest in history, and the American agricultural industry supports 1 in 12 jobs in the country. As US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack notes, “There is an unlimited future in agriculture.”
Further evidence to support the power of an agricultural degree comes from a recent comprehensive study using data from more than 34 million Americans on the economic value of their college degrees. In 2011, using an analysis of 2010 census data available through the American Community Survey, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce released a report titled What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors, which ranked Agricultural Economics as 8th in employability out of the 171 majors that the study analyzed. 
The report showed that the value of an Agricultural Economics degree lies in nearly guaranteed job security as the field has one of the lowest rates of unemployment in America with only 1.3 percent of students who studied in the major unemployed after finishing their degree. As media coverage of the study noted, an unemployment ranking of 1.3 percent is not bad at all, especially compared to the late 2011 monthly joblessness rates in the US for individuals with college degrees, which hovered at 4.4 percent or higher.
The report, which focused on how critical the choice of a major is to a student’s median earnings, also found that students who studied Agricultural Economics were well paid, with the average median salary for those earning a degree in the field at $57,000. This ranking places the major at the 68th highest paid field out of the 171 majors studied by the Georgetown team. As noted by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce Director and the report’s lead author, Anthony P. Carnevale, “The bottom line is that getting a degree matters, but what you take matters more.”
The American Community Survey data used to compile the report contained information on 171 college majors in 15 major categories – the sample was drawn from earnings data compiled from nearly 34 million Americans. Students who received undergraduate degrees in Agriculture and Natural Resources comprised 1.6 percent of the sample. Of this group, Agricultural Economics graduates comprised 6 percent of the findings with data available from 32,427 individuals. 
The job placement data for 2010 and 2011 for Agricultural Economics majors in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University is similar to the national data analyzed by the Georgetown team. The Ohio State placement rate for Agricultural Economics majors at six months after graduation is 93 percent in jobs or acceptance into graduate/professional school programs. Additionally, the average undergraduate starting salary for Agricultural Economics majors from Ohio State is $41,521, which is higher than the College’s average as a whole of $39,024.
Further evidence suggests that an agricultural degree in a generalized agricultural field, such as Agribusiness or Agricultural Economics, has proven to be more marketable to potential employers compared to specialized degrees in the same field of study. In their working paper, “Does the Jack of All Trades Hold the Winning Hand?: Comparing the Role of Specialized Versus General Skills in the Returns to an Agricultural Degree,” Georgeanne M. Artz, Kevin Kimle and Peter Orazem, from the Iowa State University Department of Economics, found that over time the premium that was paid to alumni of specialized agricultural degree programs diminished.
Using data from alumni who graduated from a large Midwestern public university during the period of 1982 to 2006, the researchers found that students who studied in more generalized agricultural fields were more economically successful over time as they were adaptable to a wider range of employment options. Through their data analysis, the researchers discovered that a large number of the alumni worked in fields outside of the agricultural industry after graduating, where, on average, they earned more than their peers who worked in specialized fields inside the industry.
As a result of their research, the researchers recommended in their findings that universities adjust their curriculums to focus on more generalized agricultural skill sets to adapt to the growing pay gap encountered by graduates of specialized agricultural degree programs compared to graduates of generalized agricultural degree programs.
The numbers don’t lie – agricultural degrees are valuable; furthermore, those that are more generalized appear to be of higher value to potential employers. With AEDE’s proven high placement rate for students in the Agricultural Economics major, and the expanding reach of the agricultural field, we hope that you will consider studying at AEDE.
Home Page Image: Eugene Jones, AEDE Associate Professor, teaching an AEDE undergraduate course in 2009 on price analysis. Photo Credit: AEDE.
September 14, 2012