Ag Econ Degree Pays Off

It may not be stretching the concept too far to say you can bank on an Oklahoma State University Agricultural Economics degree.
Or at least nearly 90 graduates of the Department of Agricultural Economics in the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources have gone on to careers in banking in Oklahoma, with as many as 27 in president or CEO positions, according to an informal count compiled by department officials.
Not that the degree was designed to produce bankers.
“We are about the business of profitability in agriculture, said Dr. Mike Woods, department head, professor and extension economist.
“We do have a lot of students who earn the undergraduate degree and take a job in the financial industry,” he said, noting the department actually has two degrees – ag econ or agribusiness – and “they are very similar – the difference tends to be some of the options, the specialized courses that you can take.”
But either direction, “it has been interesting over the years to observe the number of graduates who have gone on to become officers in substantial banks,” Woods said. “I don’t know how many we have now, but there was a point here in Stillwater, when we had 3-4 banks that had presidents, graduates of ours, that I had gone to school with or that I could remember.
Many in the banking industry in the state who graduate with the ag econ degree recognize fellow graduates in the industry, adding another level of fraternity to the already close-knit banker ranks.
Dr. Joe Williams, professor and advisor, director of the Oklahoma Agricultural Leadership Program and director of the Initiative for the Future of Rural Oklahoma, has advised students in the ag econ department for 30 years.
He is not surprised by the number of graduates who move into financial careers – his daughter, Heather Williams, is an ag econ graduate who is now a senior vice president at F&M Bank & Trust Co. in Tulsa.
“What’s interesting, some of these bank presidents and officers have degrees that are options in ag economics, even in farm and ranch management, and they get started working in banks, getting involved in their communities, and they work up to these senior positions,” Williams said.
“Many banks want to recruit ag economic graduates simply because of their broad background,” he said. “They are able to communicate with a lot of the farmers, ranchers and even your weekend farmer/ranchers.”
And the financial field opportunities are not limited to banks, he said.
“Out at your Farm Credit Services of East/Central Oklahoma office in Broken Arrow – half of that office is ag econ,” he said.
Williams gets excited about the career potential for ag econ graduates.
“I have had a very successful career doing research work, but my passion has been teaching and advising students,” he said. “This gets my adrenaline going.”
He attributed the success of the program to the quality of the students and the structure of the program.
“No. 1, we recruit top quality students from a lot of the small rural communities,” he said. “With that comes a strong work ethic. I will attribute a lot of their success to their experiences in 4H and FFA programs. They learn public speaking, professionalism, hard work and ethics.”
He said when they come to campus; the students are introduced to “a rigorous program that is really business oriented.”
“While they are here, most of them are involved in student organizations and become student leaders,” he said. “We have tenured track faculty that do all of our academic advising, and that advising in critically important in empowering these students to perform academically and professionally and get jobs. We have strong summer internship programs where we place them in banks and other businesses through the summer.”
Woods, who is a graduate of the ag econ degree program himself, said that during the past year there were about 325 undergraduate students and 75 graduate students enrolled in the past year.
He said it is not unusual for ag econ students to receive honors in the college and university wide.
“When you look at the top 15 or 20 seniors at OSU, there will be a disproportionate number of those students who are in ag econ,” he said. “That is a tribute to the students. We have been fortunate enough to attract good students.”
He said the school awarded about $72,000 in scholarships and awards last month in its efforts to keep attracting quality students.
Woods said that early on in the field of agricultural economics, the program focused on issues at the farm level, the economics of managing or operating a farm or a ranch.
“That’s what our history is grounded in. We still do that, and we still have successful students who go back and farm and ranch and have an interest in being engaged in production agriculture,” he said. “But you get over on the business side and you realize that there are some other ways that you can be involved in agriculture. One might become a farm loan officer in a bank. If you have good training and you are a hard working student, you may move right on up the ranks. That’s not unusual.”
He said one the ag econ program has changed to meet the needs of students by updating their exposure to technology and introducing an international component to their education.
“A number of our faculty are engaged in international study abroad courses,” noting that professors currently have study groups planned for Costa Rica, Europe and Mexico.
“We try to give them a taste of the real world,” he said. “We encourage them to have internships. We have a goal of 50 percent or more of our students to have some sort of internship experience, and I would add that a lot of our internship experiences end up being in banks. If you get an internship for the summer in a bank, then there you go, you have a step up and you have a shot at a job at that bank.” ?

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