Enrollment increasing at Tennessee turfgrass program

The University of Tennessee might have unlocked the secret to luring more young people into the industry.

Worried? Absolutely.

Enrollment in the four-year turfgrass program had dipped to 22 students in 2015. Perceptions about working in the turfgrass industry were, well, negative. And that’s assuming teenagers even knew they could make a living managing turf.

Dr. Brandon Horvath, a cheery assistant professor, remembers the solemn conversations with his University of Tennessee colleague Dr. John Sorochan.

“I have a 75 percent teaching appointing, so the largest portion of my job is teaching classes,” Horvath says. “As the enrollments continued to decline, John and I had conversations: ‘Our numbers are getting lower. If they continue to get lower, we are going to get to the point where physically we aren’t going to be able to teach classes. We won’t be able to justify teaching a class for two or three students that might be ready to take that class.’ That was the call that we needed to do something.”

Inside a ballroom packed with more than 300 industry professionals gathered for the banquet portion of the Tennessee Turfgrass Association Conference in Murfreesboro, Sorochan relayed a strong – and perhaps a bit surprising – message. Students are again heading to Knoxville to study turfgrass management.

Enrollment in the four-year program now rests at 45 students, according to Sorochan, a turfgrass management professor who arrived at UT in 2002. “We are finding a lot of energy,” he says. “The reason it has doubled is the perception … that there are jobs. Our students have had a 100 percent job placement by the time they graduate. They have had multiple job offers. We have done a lot of work marketing what we do and saying, ‘It’s not just a two-ton pickup truck and a lawn mower. Turfgrass is a degree where you are a professional.’ It’s a great career that people of this generation can be attracted to.”

Quality teaching, research, outreach and ultimately high job placement rates are the staples of a solid college academic program of any kind. None of those elements matter if prospective students aren’t aware of your existence, and Horvath, Sorochan and Dr. Jim Brosnan cite marketing as a major reason behind the resurgence.

Despite a sagging economy from 2008-13, the key turf players at UT maintained that “turfies” existed inside and outside the state borders. Unearthing ways to reach that group, though, had proved challenging.

UT engaged the Tombras Group to help market the turfgrass management program. Based in Knoxville, Tombras also works with the UT athletics department. Forbes recently ranked UT as the third most valuable college football program behind Texas and Notre Dame. Marketing is a significant reason for the financial success of the UT football program because the Volunteers haven’t posted a 10-win season since 2007.

On the turf side, instead of waiting for applications, faculty, staff and even students embarked in an aggressive marketing approach. They started attending more career and college fairs and touted the program by doing creative things such as sodding and painting the Twitter handle @UTturfgrass on a rock serving as a central image in UT’s Homecoming parade. Social media has developed into a key part of the marketing efforts, and Twitter handles are listed along with phones numbers and emails on the online turfgrass faculty and staff directory.

Other recruitment focuses involved connecting with the parents of prospective students and telling stories of turf-related jobs that don’t involve working on a golf course. “There are a lot of ‘turfies’ out there,” Sorochan says, “They just don’t realize it’s a career.”

To document the scope of the turfgrass industry in Tennessee, the UT Institute of Agriculture conducted a study led by Dr. Burton English. The study, which was released in 2015, concluded the industry contributed $5.8 billion to the state economy and generated close to 67,000 full- and part-time jobs in 2013. The study examined all segments of the industry, including golf, sports turf, sod production, landscape services and lawn services. The golf industry contributed $498 million to the state economy, according to the study.

“That number surprised me,” English says. “But I know Tennessee is a very good golfing state. I know there’s a big emphasis on golf course maintenance, golf courses and making sure the golfer enjoys their experience. Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.”

Nobody in Tennessee had conducted a similar study since the late 1990s. The TTA, Tennessee Chapter of the GCSAA, MidSouth Turfgrass Council, Tennessee Nursery & Landscape Association, Inc., and UT Department of Plant Sciences provided support for the research. Brosnan calls the study “hugely important” in the turfgrass program’s marketing efforts.

“We were desperately overdue to have a new survey done,” he says. “We knew the industry had grown and the impact would be significant. Now that we have the data, it’s really just the beginning for us. We wanted to use the data as a platform to leverage the visibility of the program even further and try to make inroads politically and talk about the value of turfgrass to Tennessee.”

Professors are confident a fulfilling experience awaits once students enroll in the program, especially considering Tennessee’s climate allows for the study of bentgrass and Bermudagrass. But the resurgence demonstrates the value of a tactic that also separates successful from middling players in the golf industry: Don’t assume potential customers know who and what you are. Sometimes they must be nudged.

“If you engage them in the right way, they will migrate toward your program,” Horvath says, “and we have seen that in the enrollment increase.”


Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry’s assistant editor.