Gone are the days when getting an agricultural degree led only to a plows-and-cows career. These days agricultural graduates are increasingly working in cutting-edge fields of biotechnology, robotics and all facets of human and animal health, to name only a few. The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture is reporting an all-time high enrollment with the largest freshman class ever.

In 2009, 1,903 students were enrolled in College of Agriculture programs. The most recent numbers for 2012 fall enrollment show 2,586 students.

“Students are gravitating toward the college for many reasons,” said Larry Grabau, associate dean for instruction. “When I met with parents of incoming freshmen over the summer, I pointed out that a large reason for our increased class is attributed to new programs in the college, but also growing popularity of existing programs.”

Grabau recently compiled a report breaking down enrollment growth program by program. He divided the college into several clusters made of either similar, related programs or those that naturally complement one another. For example, the food, animal and biotechnology cluster includes programs in human nutrition, animal and food sciences, equine, agricultural biotechnology and dietetics. One of the newest programs in that cluster is equine science and management. From 2009 to 2012, enrollment nearly doubled from 121 to 239 students. Human nutrition also saw large growth from 152 students in 2009 to 283 in 2012.

In Grabau’s environmental/sustainability cluster, the largest growth was in biosystems and agricultural engineering from 64 students in 2009, to 120 in 2012. In the social science cluster, agricultural economics saw the largest growth, while other areas showed a small increase or stayed steady.

Grabau said enrollment includes a large number of out-of-state students, which speaks to the quality of programs.

“We have the programs students want,” he said. “We have great faculty who are committed to helping students achieve their academic goals so they are well prepared for positions in their chosen fields. Even with increased enrollment, our faculty members have been able to meet the challenge of more students and still be responsive to the demands and emerging trends in higher education.”

Another encouraging statistic is retention. Grabau said it’s great to grow enrollment, but the real story is how many students are sticking around to finish their academic career. The most recent data shows the sophomore retention rate for the college at around 84 percent of students remaining at UK.

Agricultural graduates are in demand nationwide, and in many cases, there are more jobs than graduates. Grabau said that is especially true for crop consulting where some positions are being filled by general business or economics graduates. 

“Overall, employability of our graduates looks good,” he said. “In spite of difficult economic situations in many other fields, our graduates are finding good jobs. With average salaries for many entry-level positions around $40,000, it’s easy to see the pull toward our program areas.”