Summer 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA6

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Extension's Future Is Today

The impact of 4-H and the rural to urban shift on Extension.

James A. Christenson
Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology
University of Kentucky - Lexington

Paul D. Warner
Extension Professor, Department of Sociology
Assistant Extension Director for Development and Training
Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service
University of Kentucky - Lexington

Contrary to popular belief, urban clientele now outnumber rural clientele in Extension programs. According to a recent national survey, about twothirds of Extension users now reside in urban areas.1 While new Extension programs (for example, urban 4-H, urban gardening) have been conducted specifically for urban residents, historically, Extension has emphasized the rural nature of its clientele. Likewise, many adults have been exposed to Extension through their involvement in the 4-H program as youth. In this context, why are so many urbanites using Extension? What accounts for the present urban use pattern?

We'd argue that these are former rural residents who became adults and relocated in urban areas and carried with them a knowledge of Extension programs. This knowledge has contributed to awareness of and demand for Extension services in urban areas. This article examines the influence of rural origin and past participation in Extension on current use patterns. Specifically, it studies whether having lived in rural areas and having been a 4-Her when young translates into adult use of Extension in urban areas.

A National Sample

To assess the impact of rural upbringing and 4-H participation on adult use patterns, a national, random-dial, telephone survey of adults throughout the United States was conducted in 1982 by the Survey Research Center, University of Kentucky. The national sample consisted of interviews with 1,048 adults, representing a response rate of 70%. The national findings are part of a larger study that interrelates program inputs, activities, outputs, and environmental influences with citizens' awareness, use, satisfaction, and support of Extension.


Upbringing Influences Present Use

Nationwide, adults reared in rural areas or small towns were almost twice as likely to be current users of Extension than those reared in cities of 50,000 or more (12.4% compared with 6.9%).2 Likewise, adults who were in 4-H as youth were more than twice as likely to use the services of Extension as those who weren't 4-Hers. While 16/a of the adult population in the U.S. (about 25 million people) reported being 4-Hers in their youth, almost one-third of Extension's adult clientele in 1981 were 4-Hers in theiryouth. And, of those who were 4-Hers as youth, nearly 9 out of 10 then lived in rural areas. Now, one-third (35%) of them live in cities.

Effect on Urban Population

Both rural background and past 4-H experience were shown to be related to current use of Extension throughout the U.S. But, do these relationships hold in urban areas? Over half (52%) of current Extension users who live in cities were raised in rural areas and one-fourth of urban clientele were 4-Hers when young. Together, 60% of current urban Extension users were raised in rural areas and/or were former 4-Hers. Though both rural background and 4-H experience influence current use, 4-H exposure had the strongest effect on use patterns.

Effect on Other Programs

Involvement in 4-H yields many long-term benefits for Extension programs. Sixty percent of present 4-H leaders were former 4-Hers. Looking at this another way, 29% of all 4-Hers end up volunteering as 4-H leaders when adults. For the U.S. adult population as a whole, 8% have been 4-H leaders at some time in their lives.

4-H youth participation also leads to adult use patterns in the other program areas. Of those who were former 4-Hers, 68% were using agriculture programs, 45% home economics programs, 25% 4-H, and 19% community development in 1981 (this exceeds 100% because of multiple use). In short, 4-H experience when young not only influences subsequent involvement as volunteer 4-H leaders, but also adult participation in the other Extension programs.

Conclusion and Implications

Early exposure to Extension stimulates lifelong use patterns. The movement of people from rural areas to urban centers has been responsible for stimulating increased Extension use in urban areas. Half of the urban population grew up in the country and, as they migrated to the cities, they took with them an awareness of Extension. Likewise, past involvement in the 4-H program as youth leads to continued use of all Extension programs as adults.

Thus, rural roots and 4-H exposure have influenced current use.

But, what do these past trends suggest for the future of Extension? First, there has been a substantial decline, if not a reversal, in migration of rural people to urban areas. The next generation of urban residents won't have rural roots. Second, unless the 4-H program increases its focus on urban youth, most of these living in cities won't have participated in 4-H programs. 4-H has been a training ground for adult Extension users. Without a strong 4-H youth program targeted toward urban residents, the adult program could suffer.

Whether consciously or not, Extension has relied heavily on the informal communication system of rural communities and its youth program to generate its adult clientele. Changes in either of these circumstances can be expected to affect Extension's future. If a new generation hasn't been exposed to what Extension programs can offer or most urbanites aren't involved in 4-H, future Extension programs could be in trouble.

The findings reported here have practical implications for programming. We would expect that most 4-H alumni aren't living in the county in which they were raised. A good portion of them now live in urban areas and could serve as a nucleus for urban programming, perhaps first of all as 4-H leaders. We need to identify 4-H alumni and use them more effectively. For example, as a part of a 4-H exhibit in an urban mall in Lexington, Kentucky, shoppers were asked to provide their names, addresses, and telephone numbers if they'd been 4-Hers as youth. In this manner, a pool of 4-H alumni was identified. These are then seen as prospective 4-H leaders and other Extension program participants.

We can't change such things as the migration patterns of people, but we can try to understand them and adjust our programs accordingly. While the decline of rural migrants to urban areas may diminish the importance of rural roots in explaining future Extension use, the influence of early exposure on later use patterns is very clear. This fact is especially evident in the 4-H program. The vitality of future Extension programs depends on a strong 4-H program today. The future of Extension is being written today.


  1. Of urban clientele, 64% live in metropolitan areas (Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas [SMSA]). Similarly, 75% of the overall U.S. population lives in SMSA's. See Paul D. Warner and James A Christenson, The Cooperative Extension Service: A National Assessment (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1984).

  2. These percentages represent individual-level use in 1981.