Fall 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA2

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Why Adults Participate

A 1987 study of Ohio Cooperative Extension Service surveyed Extension clientele who had been involved in a variety of Extension programs. Five factors emerged from the principal-component factor analysis of responses to items related to participation. They were: low anticipated difficulties with arrangements, high commitments to the Extension organization, anticipated positive social involvement, anticipated high quality of the information, and possession of high internal motivation to learn.

Emmalou Van Tilburg Norland
Associate Professor
Department of Agricultural Education
Ohio State University-Columbus

Why do some adults participate in continuing education programs and other don't? What are the barriers to participation? What encourages people to attend? Why do some adults drop out and others complete a program? Are the reasons for participation and persistence different for different types of people? What can adult educators do to encourage participation and persistence in their educational programs? These questions have perplexed adult educators for many years.

Many studies on adult participation and persistence in educational programs have tried to answer these questions. A number of authors have identified factors that act as barriers or encouragers to adult participation. Johnstone and Rivera used terms such as situational barriers (time, money, child care, transportation, weather), institutional barriers (factors pertaining to the educational service provider), sociodemographic barriers (age, sex, race, income, educational level, and geographical location), and dispositional factors (self-esteem, group participation) in describing adult responses.1

Burgess identified several characteristics of adults who choose to participate in the learning experience: (1) they want to know; (2) they've established personal, social, or religious goals; (3) they're engaged in some activity; (4) they need to meet a formal, work-related requirement; and (5) they simply want to escape.2 Boshier linked the desire to improve one's ability to serve the community, the need to make new friends, intellectual recreation, professional advancement (either job-related or inner-directed), an abhorrence of television, the joy of learning, an introduction or supplementation of understanding, and escape to adult participation.3

Other authors have identified specific factors related to participation such as involvement with a formal organization that encourages adult participation,4 broad and diverse leisure activities,5 and high levels of income.6 Situational barriers to participation, such as child care, shift or overtime work, lack of transportation, poor health, and lack of time or money are more a problem for low socioeconomic adults and the elderly than the average middle-class adult. Institutional barriers (inconvenient class schedules, full-time fees for part-time study, restrictive locations) often exclude or discourage certain groups of learners such as the poor, the uneducated, and the foreign born. In addition, adults living in certain geographical areas, especially those in small towns and rural areas, are less likely to participate in educational activities.7

Application to Extension Education

A 1987 study of Ohio Cooperative Extension Service clientele provided useful information for Extension educators who work with a variety of adult learners and ponder the participation/persistence phenomenon.8

The study surveyed Extension clientele who had been involved in a variety of Extension programs (estimated target population n= 20,000; study cluster sample n = 599; final data sample n = 276). The relational design of the study provided results that addressed the following questions:

  1. What are the encouragers and barriers to participation and persistence in Extension educational programs?

  2. Are those encouragers and barriers different for the decision to participate and the decision to persist?

  3. What are the anticipated outcomes of participation and persistence?

  4. Can perceived barriers and encouragers to participation and persistence and outcomes be used to predict satisfaction with participation (suggested to be a best predictor of dropout)?

Data were collected using a mail questionnaire. Follow-ups with nonrespondents indicated respondent data were representative of the sample. The cluster sample was drawn to allow generalization of results to the population. Even though the findings and conclusions can be said to be true for Ohio, other Extension educators may want to note the implications this study presents.


Five factors emerged from the principal-component factor analysis of responses to items related to participation. They were: low anticipated difficulties with arrangements, high commitment to the Extension organization, anticipated positive social involvement, anticipated high quality of the information, and possession of high internal motivation to learn. With the exception of commitment to Extension, the same factors appeared to motivate persistence. Commitment to Extension was replaced with commitment to the teacher in the persistence question.

Participation outcomes fell into three broad categories: negative learning experiences, self-improvement outcomes, and positive social experiences.

Using multiple regression relating satisfaction to participation, the set of best predictors included receiving self -improvement outcomes, anticipating few arrangement problems, experiencing few negative learning outcomes, and having high commitment to the teacher throughout participation.

The data from this study indicated that Ohio Extension clientele participate and persist for the same reasons: they can arrange to participate, they're internally motivated, they believe Extension provides quality information, and they enjoy social involvement.

The initial commitment to Extension as an encourager to participate transferred to the teacher as an encourager to persist (return). The reputation of Ohio Extension outweighed the quality of the teacher initially, but once individuals gained experience with the teacher, commitment to the teacher became most important.

Clientele satisfaction with participation was linked to many self-improvement outcomes, liking and respect for the teacher, and being able to take care of arrangements, such as parking, child care, fees for participation, while receiving few negative learning experiences.


This study of adult participation has implications for planning, marketing, and delivering Extension programs.

People assess whether they'll participate initially using what they know about Extension in general as well as the specific learning opportunity. Marketing strategies should build on Extension's reputation for quality information. The image of Extension, recently much maligned, appeared in Ohio to be a big drawing card for current clientele assessing potential future participation-as though they trust an old friend. This theme emerged in data from urban as well as rural locations, men as well as women, and agriculturally related subjects, as well as home economics, 4-H, and community development. Reaching out to new clientele or working in areas where Extension is less well- known may require marketing to establish this reputation.

The study also suggests that Extension programs should be designed to incorporate social involvement in educational experiences. Learning experiences should also be structured to stimulate self-improvement beyond learning new information and skills related to the specific topic.

When making arrangements for educational programs, convenience should be considered by and clearly marketed to potential clientele. People make choices about participation based on the information they're given; anticipated convenience is as important as actual convenience.


1. J. Johnstone and R. Rivera, Volunteers for Learning: A Study of the Educational Pursuits of American Adults (Chicago: Aldine, 1965).

2. P. Burgess, "Reasons for Adult Participation in Group Educational Activities," Adult Education, XXII (No. 1, 1971), 3- 29.

3 R. Boshier, "Motivational Orientation of Adult Education Participants: A Factor Analytic Exploration of Houle's Typology," Adult Education, XXI (No. 2, 1971), 3-26 and C. O. Houle, The Inquiring Mind (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961).

4. G. G. Darkenwald and S. B. Merriam, Adult Education: Foundations of Practice (New York: Harper & Row 1982).

5. J. London, R. Wenkert, and W. C. Haggerstrom, Adult Education and Social Class, Cooperative Research Project 1017 (Berkeley, California: Research Center, University of California, 1963).

6. Johnstone and Rivera, Volunteers for Learning.

7. Ibid.

8. Emmalou Van Tilburg, "A Comparison of Advantaged and Disadvantaged Populations of Adult Learners Using the Expectancy- Valence Paradigm of Motivation and Adult Learner Participation, Final Report" (Staff study, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, 1988).