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Allen S. Levine

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Yahoo's 'College Majors That Are Useless'... Really?

Posted: 01/20/12 12:50 AM ET

Sometimes a story comes across my desk that demands a response.

This week a Yahoo blogger posted "College Majors That Are Useless," with agriculture topping the list of five majors, followed by horticulture and animal science.

Really?

While I'm hesitant to give the list more credibility than it deserves -- it's based almost entirely on U.S. Labor Department projections and one author's opinions -- this blog post is so far off base it has to be refuted.

Let's take a closer look at the Labor Department projections for agricultural managers. Yes, overall, the number of self-employed farm producers will decline in coming years, because farms are consolidating, and technological advances are improving productivity. Fewer workers are needed to farm larger tracts of land.

But the labor department also notes that job prospects are actually expected to increase for people who manage large farms and who grow products for niche markets such as biofuels and organic food sales. And as current U.S. farmers retire -- the average age is now more than 55 -- and demand for food and fuel products remains steady or increases, opportunities will be there for college graduates who want to enter the field.

Hmm, that actually sounds promising. How about the other disciplines cited as "useless"?

Horticulture -- in my college it's known as horticultural science -- includes everything from growing fruits and vegetables for local markets to breeding the next durable, inexpensive turfgrass used on professional sports fields.

Labor department figures project a slight decline in demand for horticulture graduates, but based on what we're seeing at the University of Minnesota, a degree in horticultural science is a ticket to a good job. Class of 2010 reports show that 89 percent of graduates found a job in their field within a few months of graduation, and 100 percent of them said they are either very or moderately satisfied with their positions.

Animal science is considered by the Yahoo blogger to be "useless" because even though the job projections show that a 13-percent increase in hiring is expected, the degree is considered too specific to be transferable to other fields. Huh? Besides the obvious career tracks, animal scientists work in the medical, pharmaceutical, food safety, and finance fields, just to name a few. Among our graduates, about half continue to graduate school, where they study veterinary medicine, public health, and biology. Those who enter the work force with a bachelor's degree find jobs in everything from sales to zookeeping, depending upon their skills and interests.

Agriculture is a far different industry than it was 50, 30, or even 10 years ago, and agricultural education has changed in similar ways. To make assumptions based on outdated stereotypes about agriculture unfairly misleads young people. Who knows? The next George Washington Carver, Temple Grandin, or Louis Pasteur might be thinking about a future in the agricultural sciences right now; the health of our people and our environment could depend on what he or she chooses.