Winter 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA2

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Attracting Youth to Agriculture

A strong commitment to youth development as a priority area by Colleges of Agriculture would be a significant step toward redirecting needed attention and commitment of resources required to meet significant goals of the colleges and the U.S. agricultural industry.

Earl B. Russell
Associate Professor and Coordinator of Graduate Programs
Agricultural Education
University of Illinois-Urbana- Champaign
Internet address:

What should the role of Colleges of Agriculture be in the expanding area of youth development? Do Colleges of Agriculture have a responsibility for developing youth resources at least to the degree they have in developing improved crop and livestock systems? Youth development has been declared an "imperative" for our nation to remain economically viable, while the corporate sector braces itself for shortages of qualified workers.1

Enrollments in Colleges of Agriculture nationally have suffered in recent years, despite growing opportunities for college graduates in the food and agricultural sciences.2 There's no reassuring evidence on the horizon that either of these trends will be reversed in the coming years.3 Therefore, the future well -being of the colleges' breadth and depth of academic programs, need for faculty positions, and resource allocations from the campus to the colleges are increasingly being jeopardized in these tough economic times.

Correspondingly, growing pressures during the 1980s for youth in the public schools to pursue rigorous academic tracks to meet increasing college entrance requirements has reduced the pool of secondary age youth who study agriculture and have interest in studying agriculture in college. Pressures on farm families and the rural economy have made youth in 4-H and FFA programs wonder about the viability of careers in agriculture. A serious "brain drain" away from agriculture is under way. With fewer youth going into agriculture, the long-term future of the agricultural industry is in question. So is the future of the Extension System, which draws a major portion of its clientele from agriculture and its employees from Colleges of Agriculture.

Re-Examining the Role

Colleges of Agriculture need to address these complex problems by focusing resources on youth development needs. Such an initiative should be aimed at communicating a more positive image of agriculture to young people and reaching and creating a larger pool of youth through 4-H and high school agriculture/FFA activities, USDA's Ag-in-the-Classroom initiatives, and related agricultural literacy programs for youth, guidance counselors, science teachers, parents, and policy-makers.

Specific objectives for Colleges of Agriculture to address are:

  1. Establish a special task force on youth development in and about agriculture to draft a plan to implement this new college priority.

  2. Request new campus resources and reallocate existing resources within Colleges of Agriculture to initiate this programmatic thrust of the colleges.

  3. Involve all academic units of the colleges in assuming appropriate roles and responsibility for youth development in and about agriculture as a coordinated, high-priority initiative in each state.

  4. Develop a five-year plan for institutionalizing youth development as a major college priority through such potential mechanisms as: interdisciplinary centers or institutes for youth development, a new thrust in one or two academic programs of the college to institutionalize a teaching and research component on youth development, and linking existing outreach mechanisms of the College of Agriculture with existing state youth organizations and programs in agriculture.

Rationale for an Expanded Role

It's rather clear that Colleges of Agriculture and the agricultural industry face serious problems if the current decrease in enrollment isn't stabilized and reversed soon. It behooves Colleges of Agriculture and all of their teaching, research, and Extension units and administrative offices to raise youth development to a college-wide concern and future commitment. The historic commitment of Colleges of Agriculture to structure their teaching and research around major farm commodities now needs to be redirected to focus on the development of youth as the major human resource required for a viable agricultural industry in the coming years.

The National Research Council's report, Understanding Agriculture: New Directions for Education, clearly articulates the need for education of youth about agriculture (agricultural literacy) and in agriculture (for career preparation).4 The report urges each state to examine the feasibility of establishing a center to give leadership to expanded youth education programs in and about agriculture at its land grant College of Agriculture.

A Texas study emphasizes that 4-H participants gain significant leadership and life skills, beyond simply teaching skills in agriculture and home economics.5 The authors point out how vital it is to effectively communicate the value of these youth programs to legislators, university administrators, and other key leaders. In an earlier Nebraska study, the role of 4-H in career development was shown.6

A study at the University of Idaho indicated that most incoming agriculture students had been heavily involved in 4-H and high school vocational agriculture.7 Sixty percent had been involved in 4-H programs and 50% had been in high school vocational agriculture. The author concluded that the potential pool of high school graduates who have had 4-H experience or secondary agricultural education could be the basis for almost doubling College of Agriculture enrollments with only a five percent increase in recruitment from that high school graduate group.

Another Idaho study found vocational agriculture instructors, Extension personnel, and 4-H leaders were among the reasons cited for students' decisions to enroll in the College of Agriculture.8 The vocational agriculture instructor was one of the most influential factors listed, while a highly significant relationship was found between Extension personnel and students' curriculum choice.

A study at the University of Nebraska was conducted to determine the proportion of its animal science majors who had 4-H and/or FFA experience, among other variables.9 Among animal science students from Fall 1980 to Spring 1986, 38.5% had been in both 4-H and FFA, 35.7% had been in 4-H only, and 9.3% had been in FFA only. Only 16.5% of the animal science majors hadn't been involved with 4-H or FFA. 4-H and FFA were major factors in a student's choice of a major, while high school instructors or counselors and county Extension agents were significant people influencing such choices. About 84% of the animal science majors surveyed were 4-H and/or FFA members before attending college.

Another study from Tennessee found that a majority of agriculture graduates had been 4-H members and had studied vocational agriculture in high school. Fifty-seven percent of graduates were active in both FFA and 4-H.10


Data and logic suggest that if Colleges of Agriculture are to reverse downward enrollment in agricultural curricula to better serve the employment needs of the agricultural industry, the pool of youth in 4-H and high school agriculture/FFA, Ag-in- the-Classroom, and agricultural literacy programs needs to be cultivated and expanded. This will require direct involvement, help, and commitment of resources by Colleges of Agriculture, administrators, and staff. Viewing youth as a major resource to be developed in meeting the future employment demands of the industry, and maintaining strong programs of teaching and research in the Colleges of Agriculture, clearly suggests the need for youth development to soon emerge as an expanded, major role in Colleges of Agriculture.


A strong commitment to youth development as a priority area by Colleges of Agriculture would be a significant step toward redirecting needed attention and commitment of resources required to meet significant goals of the colleges and the U.S. agricultural industry. Colleges of Agriculture have a growing vested interest in the expansion and quality of 4-H, Ag-in-the- Classroom, high school agriculture/FFA, and emerging agricultural literacy programs. To reach youth, clientele groups must include parents, school personnel, and policymakers. To expand the pool of youth seeking undergraduate and graduate degrees in Colleges of Agriculture, it makes sense to give top priority to reaching youth who have already received positive pre-college experiences in youth programs addressing agricultural and environmental topics. The degree to which Colleges of Agriculture respond to this priority has major implications not only for the future well -being of the colleges, but for the U.S. agricultural industry as it moves into the next century. How youth development is viewed and addressed will have a fundamental effect on youth as well as the educational programs designed for them.


1. L. C. Hoopfer, "Youth Are at Risk, and So Are We," Journal of Extension, XXVIII (Spring 1990), 7.

2. K. J. Coulter, A. D. Goecker, and M. Stanton, Employment Opportunities for College Graduates in the Food and Agricultural Sciences (Washington, D.C.: Higher Education Programs, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1990).

3. R. P. Thompson and J. G. Massey, "Trends in Baccalaureate Graduates," NACTA Journal, XXXIII (No. 1, 1989), 4- 6.

4. National Research Council, Understanding Agriculture: New Directions for Education (Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, National Academy Press, 1988).

5. B. L. Boyd, D. R. Herring, and G. E. Briers, "Developing Life Skills in Youth," Journal of Extension, XXX (Winter 1992), 16-18.

6. S. K. Rockwell, R. F. Stohler, and L. E. Rudman, "How 4-H Helps Career Development," Journal of Extension, XXII (May-June 1984), 6-10.

7. L. E. Riesenberg, "Factors Students Consider in Selecting a University or College," NACTA Journal, XXXI (No. 2, 1987), 37-40.

8. J. W. Slocombe, "Factors Associated with Enrollment in Agricultural Curricula at Land Grant Universities," NACTA Journal, XXX (No. 4, 1986), 26-29.

9. D. E. Reese and others, "Demographics of Animal Science Students and Factors Influencing Choice of Major," NACTA Journal, XXXI (No. 2, 1987), 23-25.

10. B. L. Byler and E. E. Lamberth, "Using Alumni Follow-up Studies for Program and Curricular Improvements," NACTA Journal, XXXII (No. 2, 1988), 30-33.