August 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA1

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Public Perception of Extension

This article addresses the issues of how people's perception and use of Extension have changed over a 13-year period. Telephone surveys of the U.S. population in 1982 and again in 1995 asked about the awareness and use of Extension. In addition, the 1995 study documented desired spending support for the seven base programs. Awareness of Extension has remained high, although buoyed by 4-H's high visibility. Annual use of Extension registered a decline. Funding support was found to be the greatest for programs in youth and family issues, as well as in natural resources.

Paul D. Warner
Assistant Director
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY 40546-0215

James A. Christenson
Associate Dean and Director
University of Arizona

Don A. Dillman
Professor of Sociology & Rural Sociology
Director of the Social and Economic Sciences Research Center
Washington State University

Priscilla Salant
Senior Research Associate
Washington State University

How many U. S. adults are aware of Extension? What proportion use its services? And how does the public rate Extension's programs? By answering these questions with survey data from 1995 and 1982, this article provides insight into how the public's awareness of Extension, program use, and funding priorities have changed over a period of 13 years.

The past decade and a half have brought major changes to Extension. Many states have re-organized the structure of Extension, reduced staff, and introduced interdisciplinary teams and partnerships to implement programs. They have increasingly used outcome-based evaluations in pursuit of greater accountability, reached out to new clientele, and begun delivering services using communications technologies rather than face-to-face methods. The critical question in whether these efforts have changed people's perceptions and use of Extension programs.

To answer this and other questions, a random sample of the general public was surveyed by telephone in 1995 (Dillman et al.,1995). Interviews were completed with 1,124 adults, a cooperation rate of 60 percent. Questions about Extension were included in a larger study on the land-grant universities and the education and training needs of the respondent(Christenson et al.,1995).

In 1982, the same questions about perceptions and use of Extension were included in another national telephone survey. Question wording in the 1982 and 1995 surveys was identical. In 1982, interviews were completed with 1,048 adults, a cooperation rate of 70 percent. Hence, it is possible to compare the results of the two surveys to assess changes that might have occurred. Samples of the size used in both surveys yield a sampling error precision of plus or minus three percent (Warner and Christenson, 1984). Data from both samples were weighted for educational level of the respondent based on Census figures for 1980 and 1990.


When asked if they had ever heard of the Cooperative Extension Service, 45% said they had. That is a slight increase over the 1982 figure of 40%. Respondents were then asked whether they knew of Extension programs in agriculture, home economics, 4 -H, or community development. Of the four program areas, 4-H has the greatest visibility (69%). About half of the respondents are aware of agriculture and home economics programs and 38% have heard of community development. There are some differences in the level of recognition reported for each of the program areas today compared with that reported 13 years earlier; however only with 4 -H and community development is the difference more than just a chance occurrence. The awareness level for 4-H and community development have each declined by 8%.

The level of overall awareness of Extension remains high over the 13-year period, with 6 out of 7 people in each study aware of at least one program area or the organizational name the Cooperative Extension Service.

Table 1
Awareness of Extension or Its Programs
1995 1982
Organizational Name45% 40%
Agriculture 50% 51%
Home Economics 51% 45%
Community Development38% 46%
4-H 69% 77%
Combined Total 85% 87%

The greatest recognition of Extension or its programs was found among people in the south and midwest regions, among those with more education, among rural and farm residents, and among persons over 40 years of age. Interestingly, every farm resident in the 1995 sample was aware of Extension.

Ever Used

When asked if they or a member of their immediate family had ever used the services of Extension, 26% said they had. That is identical to the results of the earlier study. The greatest rate of use can be found in the midwest and southern regions, among those living on farms, among whites, by middle-aged persons, and by persons with higher educational and income levels. The lowest level of use was found in the northeast, by persons living in cities, by minorities, by young people, and among persons with low levels of education and income.

Table 2
Use of Extension Programs
1995 1982
Ever Used 26% 26%
Past Year's Use 8% 12%

Used in Past Year

Eight percent of the respondents or their family members used the services of Extension in the year previous to the study. This compares with 12% reported in 1982. Like the results for ever used, one-year's use was higher in the south and midwest, among rural and farm residents, by middle age persons, and by those with higher income and educational levels. Similarly, as with ever used, those not using Extension in the previous year tended to reside in the northeast or west, live in urban areas, be younger, and have a lower educational and income level.

Priorities for Spending

When asked how they would distribute $100 of tax money among the teaching, research and Extension functions of land-grant universities, respondents of the 1995 survey said on average they would spend $45 teaching students on-campus, $30 on outreach, and $25 on research. The distribution did not differ by respondent age, education, region of the country, income, or ethnicity.

Respondents were then asked whether less, the same or more funds should be spent on the seven base programs: (1) nutrition and health, (2) natural resources and environment, (3) leadership and volunteer development, (4) 4-H and youth, (5) family development and management, (6) community and economic development, and (7) agricultural production and marketing. A similar question was used in the 1982 study, but the subject areas were different so a direct comparison is not possible.

Generally, there is support for the same or more funding in all seven areas. No more than 27% want to spend less in any area. However, there are some differences in where the public wants spend additional tax dollars. Those receiving the greatest support for more funds were in the areas of family and youth and natural resources. There is also strong support for increased spending on nutrition and health and economic development (jobs). These priorities are consistent with the public's perception of critical issues facing the nation.

Significantly greater support for programs in family development is found among women, youth, and Blacks. For youth programs, more spending support can be found among persons of low income and educational achievement levels. More young people want increased spending for programs on natural resources and the environment. There is greater funding support for community and economic development among young people, town and city residents, and Blacks, but not by the elderly and those with higher incomes. Increased spending support for nutrition and health is found among women and Blacks. Support for increased spending on agriculture is greatest among persons with a high school education or less, those with low incomes, and persons residing in rural areas or living on farms. And those wanting more spent on leadership and volunteerism are more likely to live in urban areas.

Table 3
Spending Desired on Base Programs, 1995
More Same Less
4-H/Youth Development 54% 41% 5%
Family Development & Management 54% 34% 12%
Natural Resources & Environment 51% 35% 14%
Community Economic Development 43% 46% 11%
Nutrition & Health 40% 45% 15%
Agriculture Production & Marketing 34% 51% 15%
Leadership & Volunteer Development 27% 46% 27%

What Does It Mean?

The high level of similarity of results of the two surveys conducted 13 years apart give credibility to the findings. The new results are not drastically different than those of over a decade ago. Some critics in the 1980s concluded that Extension had outlived its usefulness and would not be around in the 90s. So it is reassuring that Extension still exists and continues to serve the needs of clientele. However, the findings are also unsettling, since changes made in program directions and target audiences are not found to be reflected in the 1995 responses. Even though programs have targeted under-served audiences, urban residents, the young, and persons with low levels of income and education remain the least likely to be aware of Extension or use its services.

As was found in 1982, Extension continues to have a fragmented image. Three out of the four program areas have greater visibility than does the organization itself. In its marketing efforts, Extension must do a better job of building the linkages between the program identities and the overall organization.

There have not been substantial changes in the patterns of awareness and use of Extension in the 13-year period. However, the two indicators "awareness" and "ever used" are long-term measures and as a result wouldn't be expected to change very quickly. Awareness of 4-H and community development decreased and should stimulate some discussion as to why that occurred. No doubt, staff cutbacks in some states are related to the declines.

One year's use, in contrast, ought to provide a more accurate reflection of the current situation. While long-term use patterns remained unchanged, annual use declined from 12% to 8%. This decrease should raise concern about where Extension is headed and warrant regular monitoring to determine whether this is a trend.

The study shows that the public values the multiple functions of land-grant universities. Although classroom teaching is seen as most important, there is also substantial support for providing off-campus educational and technical assistance and for conducting research. What is probably surprising to many university faculty and administrators is the extent of support for outreach. This provides a strong endorsement for the efforts of the Cooperative Extension Service and other continuing education programs.

The topics on which the public wants additional funding should not come as a surprise. Extension is expected to address the most critical societal problems, and right now those are our families, our youth, the environment, health care, and jobs. Anything else is considered less important. Likewise, it is expected that a sample that is 75% urban would rate agriculture somewhat lower than the other topics. Leadership and volunteerism is critical to the success of programs in the other subject areas, and yet the public may not fully appreciate its importance. It also is less tangible than the others. However, as we examine the differences, we should not lose sight of the fact that there was a strong expression of support for all seven base programs.

The findings demonstrate that support for different aspects of the Extension program is found among different individuals. For example, support for increased funding for programs in family development and nutrition and health is greater among women than men. And that young people support funding for community development programs more than do the elderly. Extension offers a wide variety of educational programs to a diverse public. It is to be expected that individuals would find different parts of the program more useful than others depending upon their specific needs.

However, over the years we have operated as if Extension is the same thing to all people. And, we have expected Extension's lifelong supporters to rally around the organization no matter what programs were being emphasized. With programs now being designed to address specialized needs and targeted toward specific audiences, future support will need to be developed through coalitions of individuals with very different needs and expectations. Our success at building that alliance of supporters may well determine Extension's future.


Christenson, J.A., Dillman, D.A., Warner, P. D., and Salant, P. (1995). The Public View of Land Grant Universities: Results from a National Survey. Choices, (3rd quarter), 37-39.

Dillman, D.A., Christenson, J.A., Salant, P., and Warner, P.D. (1995). What the Public Wants from Higher Education: Workforce Implication's from a 1995 National Survey (Pullman: Washington State University Social and Economic Sciences Research Center, Technical Report #95-52).

Warner, P. D., and Christenson, J.A. (1984). The Cooperative Extension Service: A National Assessment. Boulder, CO: Westview.


This article addresses the issues of how people's perception and use of Extension have changed over a 13-year period. Telephone surveys of the U.S. population in 1982 and again in 1995 asked about the awareness and use of Extension. In addition, the 1995 study documented desired spending support for the seven base programs. Awareness of Extension has remained high, although buoyed by 4-H's high visibility. Annual use of Extension registered a decline. Funding support was found to be the greatest for programs in youth and family issues, as well as in natural resources.