Farm Progress

Educational Pursuit

Dr. David Kohl gives advice on pursuing a degree in economics, either undergraduate or graduate.

David Kohl, Contributing Writer, Corn+Soybean Digest

January 17, 2017

4 Min Read
Business, tax, and finance concept. Stack of coins and calculatorBusiness, tax, and finance concept. Stack of coins and calculator

In recent months, several students, individuals and parents of students have reached out to me concerning advice on whether to pursue a degree in economics, either undergraduate or graduate. There are several factors to examine including cost, earning potential, location and goals.  Let’s examine some perspectives from both sides of the subject. 

First, not everyone needs a college degree to be successful. Vocational and technical schools, along with adult education programs can be an excellent choice to lay a foundation for life’s endeavors.  Before choosing an educational program, develop your goals, both professionally and personally.  The best program for you is one that aligns with those goals. 

Concerning an undergraduate degree, the field of agricultural economics and business is a very good option. One may consider minors in agricultural sciences or communications for a well-rounded education. The key is to physically visit various programs and determine if the professors exhibit passion for their subject.  In my experience, professors able to connect concepts and principles to real-life dynamics provide a real advantage for their students.  In fact, well-versed professors can be a differentiator in success after the classroom. Explore internship possibilities, both in the U.S. and abroad.  Visit with alumni and current students in order to gain a broader perspective and learn information that may not be outlined in the school brochure. 

Next, in pursuing education, be flexible in subject matter as networking with peers, professors and others may alter your journey. Another important factor is accessibility. Will you have opportunity for face-to-face interactions with your professors and advisors, or is your classroom a numbers game? Different people thrive in different environments, so assess the culture closely in order to increase your chances of success. 

Concerning advanced degrees, while I may be admittedly biased, I recommend agricultural economics of business over straight economics. Economic programs can be very theory-oriented, which is important, but sometimes lacks of real-world application. A graduate education, and specifically a PhD is a research-oriented degree which has three elements of success: coursework, the professors on your committee, and your thesis or dissertation topic. Each of these elements is important in spanning the gap between theory and successful practices. 

A graduate degree will be a marathon, not a sprint. It will challenge one to think critically, develop skills and confidence, and set life priorities. In addition, the networking opportunities with people from around the globe can be an invaluable lifetime experience. In the next few decades, a well-trained agricultural economist with a business experience in public policy or with legal orientation will be in high demand. This will be particularly true for someone with previous work experience. 

Is it too old to start a degree at 27, or even 37? Absolutely not!  My mother earned her nursing degree at 50 years of age. One is never too old to pursue the passion of learning and intellectual curiosity.  However, especially when pursuing a degree at a later age, consider the cost and earning potential.  Tuition costs and the availability of financial aid should be on the list of top considerations for each school.  In addition, if a student loan will be required, consider the impact that debt will bear on your income after graduation.  Assess the earning potential of field you seek as well as the time frame required to service and repay your debt.   

Another important factor when considering an educational program is location.  Urban versus rural, what is your preference?   Schools located in big cities may afford certain advantages, but cost of living will most likely be higher as well.  Additionally, some schools have strong, regional networks while others are more national in nature.  If you prefer to reside in a particular area, it is sometimes best to start cultivating your network in that area during school.  However, diversity in education can also be valuable.  For example, attending different schools for the undergraduate and graduate degrees may be looked upon more favorably in some job markets.

There are many good agricultural economics programs in the U.S. While not a complete list, some favorites are Purdue, Kansas State, Texas A&M, University of Illinois, Iowa State, Nebraska, Cornell, University of Michigan, Penn State and some California schools. However, it is not the school that makes the education. It is the faculty, the mission of the department and most importantly, individual motivation and drive.  Factors such a student/faculty ratio and the focus of the department can greatly impact your resulting skill set.  So, chose the accredited program that best fits your specific needs.   

Hopefully, these comments are valuable for those pursuing an education in the economic  business side of agriculture. Beyond school credentials and rankings, an education should be a fun experience.  Learning is a privilege and an opportunity still not available to every person.  Keeping an open mind, go explore and fulfill your educational dream!  After all, education is the advantage in agriculture, economics and life in general.    

About the Author(s)

David Kohl

Contributing Writer, Corn+Soybean Digest

Dr. Dave Kohl is an academic Hall of Famer in the College of Agriculture at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va. Dr. Kohl has keen insight into the agriculture industry gained through extensive travel, research, and involvement in ag businesses. He has traveled over 10 million miles; conducted more than 7,000 presentations; and published more than 2,500 articles in his career. Dr. Kohl’s wisdom and engagement with all levels of the industry provide a unique perspective into future trends.

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