Farm Progress

Young people, if you want to work in agriculture and you want to work in Illinois, go to college in Illinois. Here’s why.

March 22, 2018

4 Min Read
THROWBACK: Sure, we studied in college. But we also built a lot of relationships (and had a lot of fun).

This spring marks 20 years since I graduated from the University of Illinois, ag degree in hand. Here’s what I’ve noticed in that time: The people I graduated with are in charge of a whole lot in Illinois agriculture.

They’re working in major equipment companies; they’re taking the lead in agronomic and chemical companies; they’re farmland experts; they’re recognized authorities in crop sciences. They’re in charge of FFA and 4-H; they’re leaders in politics; they’re innovators in livestock production, and they’re masterminding ag finance. They’re communicating and teaching the next generation.

They’re everywhere, I tell you. It’s a network.

I call on those people regularly because I know they know their stuff. And because we have a history. Back in those college days, we didn’t know we were building a network that we’d rely on throughout our careers. Mostly, we were just having fun. And yet those very people who I sat around campfires with during student organization retreats, or talked cattle with at fraternity parties? They’re the people I still work with today.

And it’s not just the U of I grads. Friends from Southern Illinois University, Illinois State University and Western Illinois University are all scattered throughout Illinois agriculture, working hard. Working together.  

It’s exactly why a little part of me dies every time I hear of another promising high schooler heading to college out of state.

Money and all
I get the reasoning: They offer cheaper tuition, Illinois finances are a mess, college is expensive. And yet, the finances may not be so bad as they first appear. At the U of I in Urbana-Champaign, the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences alone offers $3.5 million in scholarships every year. That means when you compare student loan debt from an Illinois senior to an Iowa State senior, there’s not much difference. WIU, SIU and ISU all have aggressive scholarship programs, too.

Plus, you’re more likely to get done in four years at Illinois. U.S. News & World Report says 70% of all U of I students graduate in four years, compared to 44% at Iowa State and 49% at Purdue University. Illinois leads its peers in graduation rates, in part because it’s hard to get in. U of I won’t admit students who aren’t going to succeed there.

On top of all that, I’ll add this: There’s still tremendous value in going to college with the people you intend to work with. Matt Jungmann, Farm Progress’ national events director, likes to say that you can’t swing a dead cat in Illinois without hitting a 4-H House girl. This is truth. He’s married to one. I lived with her while we both were attending Illinois. We still work together.

Certainly, you don’t have to go to the University of Illinois. It was right for me but not for everyone. My southern Illinois roots mean I know a lot of good people who got good degrees from SIU. We farm in western Illinois, which means I run into a lot of good people with WIU degrees. And the same for Illinois State; there are scores of good ag professionals coming out of there, too.

Agricultural backbone
Illinois is ripe for agricultural careers. We export $8.2 billion worth of ag commodities, the third largest in the country. We’re home to more than 2,500 food manufacturing companies, with $180 billion in sales annually. And as nearly every reader of this magazine knows: Nearly 90% of our farmland is rated prime.

Our agricultural resources considerably outweigh our political problems. So does the quality of our young people.

Parents, don’t send our best and brightest young people out of state.

Young people, if you want to work in agriculture and you want to work in Illinois, go to college in Illinois. Get a degree. Build a network. Make it happen here.

Comments? Email [email protected].

Editor’s note: Illinois ag colleges are making a big push right now to keep agricultural students in Illinois. Each of the four-year universities in Illinois that offer ag degrees — U of I, WIU, ISU and SIU — also have transfer agreements with Illinois community colleges. Spend two years at a community college and then transfer to your university of choice. It’s a good way to save money and refine your career aspirations. And they’re not kidding about the scholarship options. They want to make it more attractive for students to stay in Illinois.

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