State's Four Ag Colleges Seek to Attract Students


Published on May 8 2017 10:16 am
Last Updated on May 8 2017 10:16 am


Illinois agriculture’s academic future seeks paths for students, especially those with roots in the state.

Southern Illinois University’s (SIU) dean of agricultural sciences worries about young “talented minds who are leaving and probably won’t return.” Mickey Latour points to data showing increased numbers of Illinois high school graduates – roughly 45 percent, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education – left the state to attend college.

“We (Illinois) have got to address this,” Latour said before a regional ag forum on campus. “It will require thoughtfulness to turn that around.”

The agriculture sector continues to offer careers in a range of fields across the research, production and business spectrum, Latour pointed out.  

Two- and four-year ag institutions “each can make incremental changes to move forward,” Latour said. “We’ve got to have a vision … I’m concerned about Illinois’ long-term viability to attract these bright students.” 

The right conversations are needed among schools and universities, according to Latour. He noted 50 percent of SIU’s students are the first in their family to attend college, adding his ag faculty “does a great job of advising its students.”

FarmWeek also discussed the future with administrators at the three other state universities with agriculture programs. Their information follows.

Illinois State programs follow the jobs

Illinois State University (ISU) currently is reviewing programs considered underutilized and potential new programs, said Rob Rhykerd, agriculture department chairman.

“For us (agriculture), we’re looking at where the job demand is,” Rhykerd said. “Agriculture education – we could double the number of ag ed graduates and not meet demand.”

Rhykerd also sees rocketing growth in horticulture. He has even suggested to students considering plant science careers to think about positions at a plant nursery or a seed breeding company.

The future also remains solid for animal science and agronomy graduates as GROWMARK Inc. and other agribusinesses anticipate replacing a certain percentage of their workforces due to retirement. “There are (baby) boomers getting ready to retire, and that will open up positions,” Rhykerd explained.  

Following a third year of an ag recession, Rhykerd anticipated a slight decrease in ISU ag student enrollment after a decade of annual increases. Enrollment grew from 230 to 611 students, he said.

The ag department also is receiving fewer transfer students from other programs, such as business, to take advantage of increased job opportunities in agriculture, he noted.   

University of Illinois makes recruiting a priority

The College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) set ambitious goals that focus on recruiting and retaining students, according to Prasanta Kalita, the new associate dean of academic programs.

“If we don’t try, it will never happen,” Kalita said of an effort to create new scholarships. Regional Extension directors would be involved in selecting the recipients.

In fact, ACES is turning to Extension field staff to help find and recruit students. “We have never asked for help from Extension agents who are spread throughout the state,” Kalita noted. Recently, regional Extension directors and leaders for ACES departments met on campus to discuss recruitment. The goal is to “try to channelize everything in ACES” when a student expresses interest in the college, he explained.

ACES also plans to hire its first recruitment director who will focus on a matter that has been diffused across the college, Kalita said. 

Additional attention is being placed on student retention. ACES’ goal is to increase enrollment 30 percent by 2020, according to Kalita.

To offer students additional help in general, required subjects, such as calculus, ACES plans to create a “care center,” based on a similar service in the U of I College of Engineering, Kalita said. He suggested current ACES students might help fellow students in the center.

To further ACES’ offerings in 2017, the college plans to add a computer science program that dovetails with crop science after the Illinois Board of Higher Education approves it, Kalita said. In addition, the college is considering making a computer science minor available for all ACES students. He noted many agricultural fields include data and use data analysts who could easily have an agricultural background.            

Western Illinois emphasizes practical training, facilities

Andy Baker, director of the Western Illinois University (WIU) School of Agriculture, envisions concrete changes to his school’s facilities that involve and benefit students. Multipurpose efforts have taken root on the Macomb campus.

Through intracurricular activities, an agricultural communication class twice won a national collegiate online competition and maintains the school’s blog. A livestock merchandising class has conducted three annual, online auctions, raising tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade WIU farm technology and facilities.

Intracurricular activities bring “urgency for excellence,” Baker said, adding, “It’s neat to see them (students) engaged.”

Baker would like to add three greenhouses to three existing ones, expanding research opportunities for faculty and students. He also visualizes the greenhouses producing fresh vegetables for campus that would generate revenue, which in turn, would provide career-related, paying jobs for students.

If Baker obtains a new drainage tile system at the research farm, he reasons research should be a component, offering study of different tile systems, water movement and nutrient levels.

As for recruiting, Baker returned for a second April to recruit Iowa FFA members attending their state FFA convention, which attracts 6,000 students. Iowa universities recruit at the Illinois FFA convention, Baker noted. His plans include recruiting students at the Missouri FFA convention, which also occurs in April.