Horticulture Student Enrollment Dropping? Debunking the Myths

One of the myths in horticulture is that the number of interested students is declining, which is reducing the number of graduates available in the workforce. However, data has come forward that could refute this idea.

The Food and Agricultural Education Information System (FAEIS) is a federally mandated project “that compiles nationwide higher education data for the life, food, veterinary, human, natural resource, and agricultural sciences through an annual online survey”. Reporting is mandatory for land-grant institutions (1862, 1890, 1994), members of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), and members of Non-Land-Grant Agricultural and Natural Resources Universities (NARRU), although reporting has been uneven at times for some universities.

One of our research goals was to determine any changes in enrollment over time using the FAEIS data. We also had the goals to observe enrollment changes by gender and ethnicity over time.

Some of the data available through FAEIS has gaps due to inconsistent reporting from universities, especially from 2002 to 2011. To create a data set for analyzing enrollment, we focused on the last ten years, from 2012 to 2021, and filled in gaps in the data by averaging over the previous four years for bachelor and graduate degrees and over the previous two years for associates degrees. In addition, while online data was available from 2002 to 2022, many universities have not yet reported data for 2022 nor for 2023. Thus, we did not include 2022 or 2023 data in the analysis. For gender, race, and ethnicity data, we show percentages and as such, we could include all 20 years of data.

What We Found

Thirty-nine institutions reported enrollment in horticulture majors at the associates and bachelors level, representing 35 states and Puerto Rico. Land-grant universities generally had the greatest enrollment in horticulture (over private universities and technical schools), which is not surprising considering land-grant universities’ status in agriculture.

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Bachelor’s degree enrollment in horticultural majors reached the highest level in the last ten years in 2021, with colleges and universities reporting 3,786 students! Enrollment has been increasing since 2018, which is significant, because that shows enrollment started to go up before the increased interest in plants due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no way to know from this data set why the numbers are increasing, but all of the efforts from Seed Your Future, universities, and colleges, and other organizations appears to be paying off.

Interesting to note, 26 universities reported enrollment numbers but did not report for specifically horticulture programs. One of the main reasons is that horticulture programs at several universities were combined into a plant science program with agronomy, forestry, or other departments as an umbrella term. Plant science enrollment has been increasing since 2013, reaching a ten-year high in 2021 at 2816 enrolled students.

Melinda Table 1

Table 1. Enrollment in horticulture and plant science bachelor’s degrees from 2012 to 2021.

Enrollment in associate’s horticultural programs has been gently declining since 2012, reaching a low in 2020 due to COVID-19. This trend mirrors declining national associates degree enrollment for all majors, showing that the decline in two-year horticulture majors was not specifically due to horticulture. The good news is that horticulture enrollment went up in 2021 to 432.

Master’s programs have generally increased since 2012, reaching a high of 444 in 2018. Enrollment dropped about 9% in 2019 but has been gone up since then to 413 in 2021. A similar trend has also occurred with doctorate students, but at a slower pace. Generally, both graduate degree types’ of reported enrollment have increased consistently over time.

Melinda Table 2

Table 2. Enrollment in Horticulture Associates, Masters and Doctoral degrees from 2012 to 2021.

By U.S. Region

Where we are seeing declines is region specific. Of the four regions, the Western U.S. (West) had the highest number of horticulture students in 2021, closely followed by the South. The lowest number is in the Northeast. Enrollment in the Midwest has been generally declining for the last 10 years, while enrollment in the Northeast has been declining since 2015. On a positive note, both regions showed an increase in 2021. Enrollment in the South has been fluctuating but generally steady over the last ten years. Enrollment in the West has steadily increased over the last ten years; enrollment in 2019 and 2021 were the highest in that period as well. So perhaps the myth of the decline in horticulture programs is not really a myth for programs in the Northeast and Midwest. The FAEIS data doesn’t allow us to know the reasons for the decline, as it just enrollment data and doesn’t include economic, environmental, or social data. However, this discussion is important and warrants further investigation (don’t worry – we are doing it!).

Gender and Ethnicity

Where we see promising increases is by gender and ethnicity. This is most indicative at the bachelor’s degree level of enrollment. By 2021, horticulture is close to gender parity, but with slightly more males (52%) than females (48%). At the beginning of the reporting period, in 2002, horticulture, as with other plant science majors, was predominantly male. Because of this information, we can say that one of the contributing factors to maintaining or increasing bachelor’s degree enrollment in the last 20 years is the increase in female students into plant-related programs. The ratio of male to female students in graduate horticulture students has generally stayed consistent over time with approximately 44 to 50% female students and 46 to 54% male students, while associate programs have stayed predominately male (42% female/58% male).

Enrollment across all of the fields and degrees, except for doctoral, is predominantly White, non-Hispanic. The percentage of bachelor Hispanic students has increased over time, representing the largest ethnic group after White, non-Hispanic. This is across all plant-related educational areas, not just horticulture. Asian student numbers also increased but not to the same level as Hispanic students. For master’s degrees, the percentage of Hispanic students has also increased over time for all of the plant-related areas including horticulture. In addition, the percentage of non-U.S. citizens has also increased. The percentage of non-US citizens in doctoral degrees has been quite high for many years and was often the largest category in horticulture enrollment.

Over time, we have seen fluctuations in the number of students enrolled. However, what is promising and hopefully for our industry is that enrollment hasn’t been declining. In fact, bachelor’s degree enrollment has reached the highest level in ten years. Who and where they are enrolling may be changing, as women and people of color are enrolling more into plant-related programs and horticulture, specifically. There are also increases in bachelors’ enrollment in the Western U.S. programs. We are optimistic for the future and are glad to debunk this myth as we work to serve the industry through preparing students.

This research was funded by Seed Your Future.

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