GOING THE DISTANCE
Want to have your cake and eat it, too, professionally speaking? If you’d like to continue your education, but keep your job, perhaps an ever-expanding format known as "distance education" would work for you.
Distance courses can involve the Internet, satellite, video and correspondence, says Dan Cotton, head of communications and information technology at the University of Nebraska Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. "Today’s educational market requires institutions of higher learning to deliver programs in media formats suitable to the needs of all learners," Cotton points out.
A number of U.S. universities offer masters degree programs that combine business with agriculture, which folks can complete mostly in the comfort of their own home.
KANSAS STATE UNIVERSITY
Kansas State University (KSU), Manhattan, Kan., launched a distance Master of Agribusiness (MAB) program in 1998, and this January the fifth class will be starting the two-and-a-half year curriculum.
"Our program is designed for persons working in the ag industry to develop their business and economics skills," says Allen Featherstone, KSU’s graduate program director.
The program begins in January with a one-week orientation on the KSU campus. Following the orientation, course work begins via the Internet. Students take the same courses at the same time, making the curriculum a "cohort" program. They are expected to complete the homework and exams by predetermined dates, but are at liberty to do this work on their own schedule.
Subject matter includes, for starters, finance, marketing, international policy, risk management and behavioral management.
The first year, students return to the campus for a week in March, and then are again involved in intensive course work from April through December. The second year they are on campus for a week in January and March. The final semester is spent preparing the thesis.
"The camaraderie among the s udents has developed far beyond my expectations," Featherstone mentions. "The orientation removes any possible sense of isolation. And whenever the students are on campus, they go out for most meals together. Off campus, they keep in close contact via e-mail and special chat sessions with the faculty. Most participants are developing close friendships and ongoing professional associations."
To date, the MAB program has drawn students from some 30 states, eight countries and all sectors of the food chain. Participants include, among a myriad of professions, cattle, wheat and rice growers, along with employees of John Deere, Case IH, Farmland Industries, Land O’Lakes, Con-Agra, Safeway Foods and American Italian Pasta.
Earlier this year, KSU’s MAB was named the 2001 most innovative distance program in the country by the University Continuing Education Association (UCEA).
"There are about 400 universities in the UCEA, including the top tier U.S. schools, so that recognition really means a lot," Featherstone emphasizes.
"We are receiving positive feedback from our students," Featherstone says. "About 55 percent have been promoted or have taken new jobs since starting the program. Producers involved say they have a better understanding of the retail merchandiser and processor needs, along with a better picture of the entire food sector and how they fit in it."
To be selected for the KSU program, an applicant needs a bachelor’s degree, basic courses in accounting and statistics, plus at least two years work experience. The program costs $16,000, which includes tuition, books and fees.
The big difference between KSU’s program and Masters of Business curricula is that KSU requires a thesis, Featherstone points out. "This requirement causes our students to identify, define and solve a business problem," he says.
"I had a strong desire to further my education, and since I work in agriculture, I was drawn to KSU’s master’s program because it was based on agriculture," says Steve Brody, a project director for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a Dupont company, based in Des Moines, Iowa. Brody has completed all of the required coursework and expects to receive his degree this December, following the completion of his thesis.
"I have really appreciated the flexibility of the program," Brody says. "I didn’t have to uproot or leave my family to attend classes, I wasn’t tied to a grueling class schedule nights and weekends, and I could work on my course assignments at home, on a plane or in a hotel room," he explains.
"The instruction is extremely high quality and the teachers focus on exactly what students need on a practical level to help them excel in their businesses." Brody adds.
Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., started a distance Masters of Business Administration (MBA) in Food and Agricultural Business in the fall of 1999. The new Executive MBA (EMBA) is a joint venture of Purdue’s School of Agriculture and its Krannert School of Management. The first class of 16 graduated in August 2001.
"Our charter class included men and women whose average age is about 37 and who have been working for ten to 15 years," says Jay Akridge, EMBA director. "Those graduates represent all areas of the United States and work for a diverse array of companies from across the food chain, from Dow AgroSciences to Hormel. About one-third of our current class of 28 already had a masters degree or doctorate in another area before enrolling in our program."
The two-year Purdue cohort program starts in the fall with a one-week orientation session on campus. Next comes ten weeks of online coursework and weekly assignments, followed by another two weeks on campus for student presentations and case studies. After that, there are ten more weeks of online coursework, then four weeks off.
This schedule is repeated three more times (four semesters total) over the two years with the final two-week residency session held at Wageningen University in Wageningen, Holland
The Purdue EMBA program costs $37,500 for tuition, books and fees, plus all lodging and most meal costs while on campus. A variety of payment options are offered to match company reimbursement programs.
Forty-eight credits are required for the Purdue degree, and while the coursework and delivery format is somewhat similar to KSU’s, no thesis is required, and the general emphasis of the program is a bit different.
"Ours is a fully-accredited Masters of Business Administration program delivered in partnership with a top 20 business school, and we focus on the functional areas of management such as marketing, finance, and production/operations and how those functional areas come together in making management decisions," Akridge says, "Our objective is to help managers with functional responsibilities such as marketing managers and plant managers, and individuals with technical backgrounds, develop general management abilities. We do this by combining a solid MBA curriculum with a careful look at the food and agribusiness marketplace."
Purdue’s EMBA program received the 2000 r1.edu award for outstanding contributions to distance learning. R1 universities are the major research universities in the U.S.
Requirements for acceptance include an undergraduate grade point average of 3.0, a minimum score of 530 on the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test), five years work experience and three letters of recommendation.
"Our job is to admit people who have all the tools to be successful in the program," Akridge relates. "Purdue’s EMBA program caters to the same audience of professionals that previously enrolled in non-degree short courses offered through Purdue’s Center for Food and Agricultural Business," he points out.
"I wanted to continue my education at a business school ranked in the Top 25, and Purdue’s distance EMBA program is part of the university’s prestigious Krannert School of Management, which is known throughout the world," says Del Craig, Wichita, Kan. A 2001 Purdue EMBA graduate, Craig manages commercial activities for Cargill’s North American Refined and Food Service Oils Business Unit.
"Purdue’s Krannert School of Business is noted for it’s expertise in corporate finance and information technology, and the Purdue School of Agriculture’s Department of Ag Economics is one of the best in the country, which I considered a real plus," Craig continues. "Continuing my education at Purdue has allowed me to add some new tools and the knowledge to use those tools when analyzing projects for my company."
What’s the future of distance education?
"We believe distance educational programs will be increasingly important, and demand for flexible training programs for people who want continuing education but don’t want to leave their jobs will continue to increase," Akridge says, noting that many companies are financing these programs for their employees.
Anyone contemplating distance education needs to decide what program best fits his or her lifestyle and what goals are desired, Craig advises. "You can learn on the streets," he says, "but being exposed to strategic thinkers in an academic setting will help you get on the curb faster." AM
SIDEBAR: DISTANCE ED OPTIONS
Hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities offer one or more options for distance education, including non-degree courses, and degree courses at the bachelors, masters and doctoral levels, according to University of Nebraska-Lincoln education professor Janet Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC). Founded in 1989, ADEC includes 60 member universities and serves as a non-profit umbrella organization that disseminates information about all forms of distance and residential educational and grant programs available throughout the world. (www.adec.edu includes an online catalogue of distance educational offerings worldwide.)
Some schools offering distance ed courses related to agriculture
*University of Florida (www.fred.ifas.ufl.edu/mag_am)
* Iowa State University (www.lifelearner.iastate.edu)
* University of Illinois (www.online.uillinois.edu)
* University of Minnesota (www.idl.umn.edu)
* University of Nebraska (http://extended.unl.edu, www.ianr.unl.edu)
* California Virtual Campus (www.cvc.edu)
* Penn State University (www.worldcampus.psu.edu)
* University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada (www.mbaagri.uoguelph.ca)
* Norman Borlaug University (www.nbulearn.com) AM