The Four-year turf degree: The Big Picture

Columns - The Monroe Doctrine

January 21, 2016

Stories about the cost of higher education, the value of a degree and overqualified unemployed graduates headline the news. In fact, this topic is more prevalent than stories about golf’s decline and downturn. So it doesn’t take much to question the future of the four-year turf degree.

Statistics show earning a degree is worth the cost. In fact, some argue it has never been more valuable, and U.S. Department of Labor data on pay gaps illustrates this point. The Economic Policy Institute reported that in 2013 those with a four-year degree earned 98 percent more than people without. Also, in April 2013, the unemployment rate for individuals 25-34 years old who held a four-year degree was only 3 percent.

To put a value on it, one MIT economist calculated not having a degree would cost a person about $500,000 over a lifetime, and this figure is rising. In the big picture, completing an undergraduate degree will result in more earnings, higher employment rates, greater opportunities and more success. Given the trend, you have to wonder how long it will be before a four-year degree won’t be enough and circumstances will put a lot more value on a master’s degree.

Statistics from a 2015 GCSAA compensation/benefits report support the importance of a degree in golf turf management. The pay progression, from lowest to highest considering all superintendents (regardless of classification or certification) is: high school to some college to a one-year certificate to associate’s degree to two-year certificate to bachelor’s degree to master’s degree. The pay differential between high school and bachelor’s degree amounted to almost $25,000 per year.

But there are major exceptions that are well known among my generation. Successful superintendents without a college degree were common, and they managed some of our best golf courses. They were smart and took advantage of other avenues of education – seminars, conferences, program speakers and a hundred other ways. All had generous doses of common sense, huge work ethics and a love for the profession.

At our land grant University of Wisconsin in Madison, tuition, books, room/board, miscellaneous and travel cost a student an average of $24,735 per year. These costs have impacted enrollment in our four-year turf degree program (we do not offer a two-year degree). I suspect the story is similar all around the country. It is also difficult to gain acceptance – high class ranking, many activities and high SAT/ACT scores thin out the list of potential students. If you can manage the $100,000 for a four-year degree, have the credentials to gain acceptance and the intellect to graduate, you will be eligible for a job as a spray tech or a second assistant. Or, if you are really lucky, maybe an assistant superintendent job. Pay? Somewhere between not very good and lousy. Compare that to the student who earned a degree in engineering or business, and kids wonder why would you select golf course management for a major? It makes no sense economically.

As a result, we see a substantial decline in four-year degree programs.

I hate it. I’m a product of the Wisconsin program, albeit a long time ago. I had 100 four-year degree students work for me over my career, and nearly everyone has had a successful career in golf. But I understand the hesitancy undergrads have. Nonetheless, I tend to be more optimistic. We still need four-year degree grads. The best of them will fill superintendent jobs and we certainly want that. To argue otherwise is to argue against education. Our grad schools benefit from having students attend with turf background rather than without. We surely don’t want to see a weak graduate school pool.

I see my own chapter and our Wisconsin Turfgrass Association stepping up to increase scholarship help. Maybe we will all be able to do a little bit more.

A four-year degree’s value is less obvious. It offers an increased sense of accomplishment, higher job satisfaction, more confidence, and increase eligibility for other jobs. Hopefully, a degree sharpens one’s ability to think critically, to question practices and procedures, and allow for growth and development.

Golf has stalled and new jobs are few. That could change as aging superintendents retire and vacancies are filled. A new equilibrium will be reached – the new norm and four-year degrees can fill their new place. In fact, it may end up resembling the program when I was an undergrad 50 years ago.

Certainly, a four-year degree is not the only path to a successful career in golf course management. But I still think it is the best path.