About three times a week, Samantha Nigbor steers her parents’ 2006 Chevy Trailblazer out of their family farm and drives to Appleton, Wis., For class. Rolling fields and small towns whip past during the hour-long trip to Fox Valley Technical College. Often she sees deer.
Nigbor, 20, hopes a two-year agriculture degree will put her closer to a dream she’s had for years: raising deer.
“I’ve had chickens since I’ve been in fourth grade. I’ve had goats since I’ve been in middle school, ”Nigbor says. “Deer is the next level that I gotta get to.”
Two-year colleges have borne the brunt of higher ed’s pandemic-era enrollment spiral, with enrollment in fall of 2021 down 15 percent from less than two years ago.
But the program-specific data tell a different story. While majors like English and physical sciences have shrunk, skilled trades like agriculture and construction management are flourishing.
Nationally, enrollment in agriculture and related sciences majors grew about 41 percent at two-year institutions in fall 2021 – by far the largest percentage increase of any community-college program, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Attending Fox Valley Technical College was an easy choice for Nigbor: It was not too far from home, offered animal-science courses, and gave her a full scholarship. She could also be in and out in two years, ready to capitalize on industry opportunities.
Beyond agriculture, construction trades saw the second-highest enrollment jump, with a 17.5 percent increase from the previous year. Precision production – which includes metalworking, leatherworking, and furniture production, among other trades – increased nearly 10 percent; mechanic- and repair-technologies programs grew by 7 percent.
Several factors are driving this growth, experts say: Skilled trades have jobs to fill and tend to pay well, especially for employees with technological skills. Many of these industries need more people with backgrounds in science, like chemistry, engineering, and biology. Often, people already on the job are also enrolling to gain new skills.
In agriculture and related fields, about 60,000 high-skilled jobs are expected annually in the US between 2020 and 2025, while only about 35,000 students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture each year, according to a report from the US Department of Agriculture and Purdue University.
A 2021 survey from the Associated General Contractors of America found that 89 percent of construction contractors were struggling to find workers trained for the job.
Community and technical colleges have a crucial role to play in filling those gaps.
Fox Valley Technical College – which has seen growth in its agriculture and construction programs – has not experienced large enrollment dips during the pandemic like many two-year institutions have. The college offers technical diplomas, certificates, and associate degrees.
Its associate degree in construction-management technology has more than doubled in size over the last three years, says Chris Dragosh, associate dean of manufacturing, agriculture, and construction technologies.
Dragosh says there’s been a surge in the number of people entering the program who already have expertise in a trade like carpentry or masonry but now want to learn project management. People want more job security, he says, because so many workers were laid off when projects were shut down due to Covid-19.
“This type of job – construction management – you’re able to perform a lot of your job through the computer: conduct meetings, plan, review specification, and things like that,” Dragosh says. Some technical diplomas, like the electricity and house-building programs, have also experienced an enrollment bump.
In the agriculture field, employers need workers who understand technology, says Jennifer McIntosh, the college’s associate dean for the agriculture and natural-resources departments.
“They’re looking at things like being able to manage a farm, manage a dairy, manage a herd, and then also understand the science behind that,” McIntosh says. “Students are looking for more of those technical aspects – the science behind what they’re doing and then really being able to apply that in the industry.”
Sarah Mills-Lloyd, an instructor of agribusiness and farm operations, says career prospects in agriculture are bright for students.
Enrollment has also become more diverse. More students from urban areas are studying agriculture, Mills-Lloyd says, and the number of women in the programs has grown around 26 percent since 2018-19. Last year, about 54 percent of agriculture students were women.
One of the biggest draws for students, Mills-Lloyd says, is experiential learning. The college has partnerships with local farms and other companies, giving students an opportunity to work with large animals and help with farm production.
Nigbor’s classes sometimes bring her to the field where she’s able to handle cows, take their temperature, and administer shots or probiotics. She’s also learned how to take soil samples in a crop-production class, something her father always used to hire someone to do. Now Nigbor takes the samples herself.
She’s not raising deer yet, but Nigbor is hopeful she’ll achieve her goal soon after she graduates in May.
“I would not have it any other way. I can not imagine myself living in a suburb or going to an office job, ”Nigbor says. “The farm life is for me, that’s for sure.”
It’s not just two-year degrees in the skilled trades that have become more popular.
Blue Ridge Community College, in North Carolina, has seen a big increase in interest in its apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs. These paid programs – which include automative, business and banking, electrical, manufacturing, and plumbing – are a free, shorter alternative to an associate degree.
Students finish the apprenticeships with college credit, relevant certificates, and a full-time job. The number of local manufacturers and institutions partnering with the college rose from four to 24 between 2019 and 2022.
“Frankly, we have more demand for these apprenticeships than companies are ready to meet at this point,” says Benjamin Rickert, the college’s director of marketing and communications.
In California, the community-college system lost about 20 percent of its students between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2021, according to a March memo. Allan Hancock College, in Santa Maria, saw enrollment fall 8 percent from 2020 to 2021.
But its agriculture-science degree saw a 14-percent increase.
Agricultural business and plant science also grew that year, says Chris McGuinness, a spokesperson for the institution.
The college only offered a viticulture and enology degree in agriculture when Erin Krier was hired, about five years ago. Tasked with growing the college’s other degrees and certificates, the agriculture instructor says those programs have since grown rapidly as the industry has evolved.
Due to scientific and technological advancements, Krier says, there are many high-paying positions for students interested in computer science, biology, chemistry, and business.
“It’s not just being a farmer,” Krier says. “I have students from all over the board in what they are interested in doing, but they see that there’s a lot of employment opportunities, especially around here.”
For students drawn to agriculture before it became a more common area of study, the additional interest is exciting to see.
Montse Zarate’s interest in agriculture was born from the hours she spent visiting her parents as they worked in Santa Maria’s broccoli and berry fields. She regularly recalls peppering them with questions about berries and vegetables.
“My parents tried their best to answer these questions, but I just knew I had to know more,” Zarate says.
Now 19, she’s studying plant science at Allan Hancock College. After finishing her associate degree, she’ll transfer to California Polytechnic State University, where she’ll continue to study agriculture science. She plans to work with berries in the future.
For the first time, Zarate says, she’s surrounded by other students who are passionate about the same things that she is. “It’s just nice actually meeting other students who want to do the same thing I want to do or are on this similar route,” she says.