Balancing Student Debt and a Career in Agriculture

By Katie Poppiti, Agriculture Program Coordinator

In a recent article, Lisa Munniksma, Delaware Valley University Alumna in Animal Science, shares concerns of growing student debt and its impact on new and beginning farmers, as well as other careers in agriculture. According to the USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture, there are 22,500 fewer students graduating from agricultural programs than are needed to fill U.S. ag jobs.

The average undergraduate student debt is $29,400. This is affecting how recent graduates across all disciplines are able to plan for the future, purchase homes, travel, and/or start businesses such as a farm. According to a survey of 1,000 beginning farmers, by the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, lack of capital was identified as the biggest obstacle facing new farmers.

So what are some ways to combat this in regards to college debt?

There is a Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program already in place for full time employees of a government agency or a 501(c)3 nonprofit. The loan notes apply only to the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program and are not so much “forgiven” as adjusted based on income.

Another approach, being campaigned by the National Young Farmer Coalition (NYFC), is to categorize farming as a public service, therefore amending student loans for young adults working in agriculture.  Presently, New York is the only state offering a similar program.

Also up for reauthorization is the Higher Education Act. Originally intended to incentivize the need for teachers in the mid 60s, NYFC hopes that “Farming is a Public Service” legislation can be introduced into the act.  While categorizing farming as a public service is receiving positive response, two critiques have emerged. One is that some farmers want to be seen strictly as farmers and business persons, not as public servants. Second, is the notion that people do not need to go to college to learn farming. While the former critique is certainly valid, the latter is less realistic in today’s world. Munniksma states, “Running a farm business in a business” and as NYFC Coodinator Sophie Ackoff points out, unless you are from a family farm-and fewer people are these days- you probably won’t discover farming until you’re in college.

To view Lisa Munniksma’s full article as well as USDA identified “hot” jobs in agriculture, click here.