Enrollment in the agricultural science certificate and three agricultural degree programs – agricultural science, plant science, and agricultural business – created with an ATE grant at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, California, grew in the past year while community college enrollments in California and nationally decreased.
For example, the number of declared agricultural science majors increased from 109 students in 2018-2019 – the first year of the program – to 317 in 2019-2020. During 2019-2020, the headcount enrollment in agricultural science was 465, a 172% increase from the year before when the headcount, which includes non-majors, was 171.
During 2020-2021 – the year of COVID-19 restrictions – the headcount enrollment in agricultural science courses increased to 529 students. That was a 14% increase at a time when overall headcount at Allan Hancock College decreased by 8%. Enrollment at U.S. community colleges dropped 9.4% from fall 2019 to fall 2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
“Anything agriculture happened as a direct result of the NSF ATE grant,” said Erin Krier, principal investigator of Creating Precision Agriculture and Crop Protection Pathways via Industry Partnerships (Award #1800889). Prior to Allan Hancock College receiving a $225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education program, the Central Coast college had an established viticulture and enology degree program that focuses on wine-making. However, it had only a smattering of courses in other aspects of agriculture. And none of those courses led to agriculture-specific credentials.
“That grant launched the whole program,” Krier said.
Krier attributes the strong enrollment in academic year 2020-21 to her and the five adjunct agriculture instructors having college administrators’ permission to hold courses in outdoor settings on the college’s farm and in its greenhouse in fall 2020, when many other programs were limited to virtual delivery. Krier is coordinator and instructor of agriculture and interim coordinator of veterinary technology at the college.
“We were able to incorporate some hands-on, in-person activities in the classes, which kept the interest of the students, particularly agriculture students. They are very much drawn to hands-on learning activities so we were able to accommodate that to a certain degree,” she said during an interview via Zoom in May.
Agricultural science students had the option to take in-person courses remotely, if they did not want to come to campus. And some courses were entirely virtual. But, Krier said, enough courses were in-person to encourage semester-to-semester persistence among students who prefer hands-on learning. The Young Farmers & Ranchers Club that she leads on campus was also able to hold in-person meetings.
Throughout the pandemic she also continued recruiting high school students in rural Santa Barbara County by periodically joining their virtual class sessions to talk about the college agriculture program and agriculture career opportunities, and by continuing to reach out to Future Farmer of America clubs at the high schools.
Since receiving the grant in July 2018, Krier has expanded agriculture dual enrollment agreements to four high schools with 17 concurrent courses.
During the past academic year, Krier expanded the college’s program to include courses for stackable certificates in crop protection and pest control adviser preparation. During 2021-22, she hopes to add precision agriculture to the program.
Prior to Covid-19, Krier used grant support to bring fifth-to-eight graders to campus to make them aware of the array of agriculture careers that could be accessed through the college’s program.
She summarized her recruitment message as this: “Hey, there’s a 101 million things that you can do in agriculture no matter what your interest is. It could be computers. It could be business. It could be laboratory. I mean it’s just endless, really. It’s part of my message that there’s a lot of good, good jobs in the industry.”
It’s a message that Krier has to repeat often. Allan Hancock College is a Hispanic-serving institution with many first-generation college students. Many of her potential students are the children of farm workers who weed and harvest crops on the large industrial farms and smaller family operations that are a significant part of the region’s economy. Krier said 100 specialty crops are grown in Santa Barbara County.
While some farmer workers encourage their children to pursue other careers, Krier said many children of farm workers have enrolled in agricultural science courses and work on farms when they are not attending classes.
“A lot of them are really in love with agriculture. They love plants. They are very interested in learning what’s going on with plants.…But they want to do something that pays better and that’s not such back-breaking work, and they see there’s potential,” she said.
To help students and their families understand the array of career opportunities in their overlapping disciplines the faculty from the agriculture, viticulture, enology, culinary arts, nutrition, and food science have in recent years organized a multi-day Field to Table welcome event the week before fall semester.
Krier said the annual event – offered virtually and for just one day in 2020 – was not a goal of the ATE grant, but grew from it. “It was one of those things that developed as part of the work on the project,” she said.
Plans are already underway for an in-person event for this year with all the various programs’ coordinators and counselors on hand to interact with students. Everyone who has signed up for courses in one of those disciplines in fall 2021 will be invited.
Students will be encouraged to bring their families – parents, spouses, and children – to campus for the first day’s afternoon or evening sessions where food and information is distributed. On the second day there will be campus programs just for the students. These will include panel discussions by current and former students. And, on the third day the students will go on “super cool industry tours” that will conclude with lunch at a field-to-table restaurant.
“The value is partly to help them see the diversity in those disciplines,” Krier said. The other value is helping students begin by knowing who faculty members and advisors are, and that they are approachable.
“The extra support and connection are more than if they just sign up for a class and show up,” she said.