Anyone who’s managed an athletic field can tell you that more isn’t always better. Whether it’s fertilizer, herbicides, infield material, irrigation water, etc., you want to use the right amount to get the job done without overdoing it. Many students take the same approach when it comes to a turf management education, opting for a two-year degree rather than a four-year program. That’s not to take anything away from bachelor’s degrees – for certain individuals, that’s the better choice. But for others, two years is just the right amount of college to learn the skills needed to get started in a career managing turf.

It’s not just turf management where two-year associate degrees are a popular choice. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that between 2003-2004 and 2013 – 2014, the number of associate degrees earned in the U.S. increased by 338,000 degrees, or 51 percent. Perhaps the increased popularity of two-year degrees has something to do with research cited in a 2014 report by The Wall Street Journal, which reported that “paychecks for holders of associate degrees in a technical field are outstripping many grads with four-year degrees, at least early in a career.”

Picking a program

There are many educational institutions, ranging from large state universities to local community colleges, offering two-year programs related to turfgrass management. Some two-year programs are specific to sports turf, many are oriented toward general turfgrass management and include golf turf and landscaping topics. In most cases, graduates earn an associate degree; in others, it’s a certificate. A few (Penn State University, for example) offer online options, giving students the opportunity to get an education while continuing to work.

Every individual is different, and so is every two-year turf program, so there’s not a singular best fit. But it’s helpful for anyone interested in a career in the sports turf industry (and even for those already in the industry) to understand a little about how these programs generally work.

John “Trey” Rogers, turfgrass professor at Michigan State University and coordinator of the school’s two-year sports and commercial turf management program, says that the program has been around for nearly three decades. Those who complete Michigan State’s program receive a certificate rather than a degree. “But the classes themselves are fully transferrable to any university, so they are earning university-level credits,” says Rogers.

Admission to Michigan State’s two-year sports turf program comes with the requirement that students first must have worked for one season in the industry before coming to school. “That pretty much tells us whether or not you like the work,” says Rogers.

Rogers adds that a five-month, paid internship is at the heart of the school’s two-year turf program. (Internships are a part of the program at each of the schools SFM spoke to for this article.)

“We have internships all over the country; we’ve had them at [organizations] like the Boston Red Sox and the Milwaukee Brewers – we place students everywhere,” says Steven Rackliffe, assistant professor of turfgrass science and student advisor with the two-year turf management program at the University of Connecticut (UConn), where students come with an interest in not only sports turf but also golf turf and general landscaping.

“The way our two-year program works is that the major is called ‘horticulture and turfgrass management,’ and then students pick a concentration within that,” Rackliffe explains, noting that, no matter the concentration, there’s a lot of overlap in the classes taken. “Like most two-year programs, it doesn’t get into the hard sciences like a four-year program will. They have plant science courses, soils course, turf courses, pest courses and irrigation courses – but two-year students typically aren’t taking things like chemistry,” he says.

Rackliffe does try to get all students in the two-year turf program to expand their horizons. “Take a trees course, take as many business courses as you can,” he says. “You never know where you’re going to be working.” Someone managing sports turf, for example, may also be responsible for caring for the trees and the rest of the grounds at a park or school campus.

Michigan State University’s two-year sports and commercial turf management program is headquartered in the school’s Plant and Soil Science Building.

Michelle DaCosta, associate professor of turfgrass physiology and advisor for the two-year turf program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s (UMass) Stockbridge School of Agriculture (one of the oldest such programs in the country, dating back to the 1920s) says that students in that program take classes alongside four-year students. “Anyone who is a turfgrass management major has the same basic science and turf courses,” DaCosta explains. That means that two-year students are being taught by the same specialized research and teaching faculty members (turf agronomist, entomologist, pathologist, physiologist, pathologist, etc.), rather than general outside lecturers.

The curriculum varies among different turf schools. At Virginia Tech, which offers an associate degree program in landscape and turf management, for example, two-year students get training not only in turf but also in some of the other skills they’ll need to advance in their profession. “The first semester, they take what we call core courses: a computer course, a communications skills course, fundamentals of turf management, a plant biology and chemistry class and an orientation class,” says Brenda French, admissions coordinator for the program. In the second semester, there’s options such as an applied mathematics class (where problems revolve around things like fertilizer rates, etc.), a machinery and mechanics class, as well as classes on personnel management and professional selling (for those who might follow a sports turf career path working for a supplier).

Benefits of a two-year program

Speed is the obvious benefit of a two-year versus four-year degree, says Rackliffe. “I think that’s one thing that appeals to people. … [UConn has] many extremely successful students come in from high school and say, ‘I just want to get my two-year degree and get out there and earn a living.’

And they do that, and they do very well.”

That means that, typically, almost all of the classes taken by students in the two-year program are related specifically to turf management, rather than ancillary subjects. “Of the 60 credits that are involved [at Michigan State], there’s about 52 that are exactly related to turfgrass. Being that specific makes it easy to stay motivated,” says Rogers. “It’s harder to motivate a student, sometimes, when they have to go fulfill, say, a humanities requirement that’s part of a four-year program.”

For four-year students, there are many additional courses in other fields that are required to graduate. In fact, Rackliffe says that many students who complete the two-year program at UConn and then move into the four-year program tell him, “I had all of my fun courses in the first two years – in the last two years I have to take all the general education requirements!” For two-year students, the focus remains mostly on managing turfgrass “and you’re right into it right away,” he says. “For students who love to work with their hands and love being outdoors, that’s right up their alley.”

Two-year Turfgrass Programs

At right is a list of some of the schools — ranging from state universities to local community colleges — offering two-year associate degrees, or, in some cases, certificate programs related to turfgrass management:

  • Cincinnati State (Ohio)
  • Clark State (Ohio)
  • Delhi Community College (New York)
  • Guilford Technical Community College (North Carolina)
  • Horry Georgetown Technical College (South Carolina)
  • Iowa Central Community College
  • Kirkwood Community College (Iowa)
  • Michigan State University
  • Mineral Area College (Missouri)
  • Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College
  • Mt. San Antonio College (California)
  • North Carolina State University
  • Ohio State University
  • Oklahoma State University
  • Penn State University
  • Piedmont Technical College (South Carolina)
  • Rochester Community and Technical College (Minnesota)
  • Southwestern College (California)
  • Texas State Technical College
  • Trident Technical College
  • University of Connecticut
  • UMass-Amherst (Stockbridge School)
  • Virginia Tech University
  • Walla Walla Community College (Washington)
  • Wayne Community College (North Carolina)
  • Western Kentucky University

Editor’s note: This is only a partial list of all the U.S. schools that offer turf-related certificates or degrees

When two years isn’t enough

Some students attracted by the benefits of a two-year degree program realize once they’re at school that they’d like to continue on to get a four-year degree. Each of the schools SFM spoke to for this article also offer bachelor’s degrees and work with students to make that transition. That may be a slightly more difficult process at community colleges or schools that don’t offer bachelor’s programs, with credits having to transfer to new institutions. At least one such school, Piedmont Technical College in South Carolina, offers graduates of its two-year program the opportunity to go on to complete a bachelor’s degree in turfgrass management at nearby Clemson University.

When selecting a program, it’s worth asking what the options are to pursue a bachelor’s degree if that decision is made later.

“A lot of students come into the two-year program with the thought of then transitioning to the four-year program, so we try to make that transition as smooth as possible – that way you can leave UMass in four years with two degrees, both an associate and a bachelor’s,” explains DaCosta. Most of these students remain in the turfgrass major, but others switch to landscape design or even a completely unrelated major. The two-year program gives students a chance to be sure that turfgrass management is the area they want to focus on, says DaCosta. “That’s one of the biggest advantages for students who may not be totally sure.”

The University of Connecticut’s turf management program has placed interns throughout the sports turf industry.

Programming changes

Rogers and DaCosta both say that there have been changes in the specifics taught in some classrooms at Michigan State and UMass (Michigan State now includes a Spanish language offering, and the budgeting class now uses software rather than handwritten ledgers, for example), but that the overall subject matter covered in their respective longstanding two-year turf schools remains largely unchanged. “Mowing technology has changed – why you mow has not,” summarizes Rogers.

DaCosta says one thing that has changed in turf management programs has been an increased focus on issues relating to environmental concerns and water quality standards: “This is a science degree, and our students are taking courses to help them maintain turf with less inputs. At least in our program, that’s an underlying theme in all of our courses.”

And another change has been an increase in the number of turf students interested in sports turf. DaCosta says that golf maintenance remains the focus for many students coming into the UMass two-year program, but adds, “I feel like we’ve seen a little bit of a shift in that in recent years where we have more students interested in sports turf.”

At UConn, Rackliffe, himself a former golf superintendent, says that when he came to the school in 2000 (after the golf course building boom of the 1990s), most of the turf students were interested in a career in golf. “But that’s really changed. Now we have quite a few interested in sports turf, or in running their own landscape companies,” he says. “And many now start out in golf turf and end up in sports turf.”