February 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 1 // Commentary // 1COM1

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Changes and Challenges in 4-H (Part 2)

This is the second of a two-part series to address the history of 4-H and identify the changes and challenges of the future. This article reviews the changes and challenges documented in 4-H enrollment statistics (including rural, urban, and ethnic membership), financial support, volunteerism, Extension personnel, and teaching tools. Despite many challenges, these indicators suggest the 4-H program has numerous opportunities to remain a premier youth organization.

Beth E. Van Horn
County Extension Director/Family Living Agent
Pennsylvania State Cooperative Extension of Centre County
Bellefonte, Pennsylvania
Internet address: Beth1@psu.edu

Connie A. Flanagan
Associate Professor

Joan S. Thomson
Associate Professor

Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
Pennsylvania State University
State College, Pennsylvania

The roots of 4-H are in the corn clubs of the early 1900s. Today, you probably won't find many 4-H corn clubs, but you will find 4-H projects on the World Wide Web, a phenomenon unimagined 75 years ago. Through its 75 year history, 4-H has experienced many peaks and valleys. As it moves toward the next millennium the challenge for 4-H is to address the changing needs of youth while maintaining a commitment to its mission and tradition. Clues to how we can meet today's challenge may be found by examining our past and analyzing how the organization adapted to change while remaining steadfast in its core mission.

4-H Enrollment - Rural Vs. Urban

Since 1914, when membership was recorded at 116,262, 4-H has experienced tremendous growth in the United States. 4-H membership peaked in 1974 at 7.5 million. In 1994, 4-H enrollment listed 5.6 million members, a drop of almost 2 million. The transition from rural to urban membership is one factor that can account for this drop in membership.

In 1975, 32.2 percent of the members came from farms, 40.1 percent from rural nonfarm, and 36.7 percent from towns and cities of over 10,000 population (Vines & Anderson, 1976). In 1994, 13 percent of the members came from farms, 37 percent from rural nonfarm, and 50 percent from towns and cities of over 10,000 population (Annual 4-H Youth Development Enrollment, 1994). These figures reflect the drastic decline in the number of family-owned farms during the same period. As the number of family farms drop, so does the prime potential of traditional membership. Public funding support and commitment from the organization to focus on urban youth has not kept up with demand.

The shift to an urban population has presented a challenge to the organization. Because our roots are in agriculture and in rural America, many clubs and programs reflect those traditions. However, agricultural activities may or may not mesh with the experiences of urban youth.

Two important questions should guide program development and adaptation for new groups of youth. First, what are the principles underlying our programs that we want young people to learn by participating in these programs? Second, what projects (whether traditional or from new programs) will appeal to and meet the needs of the young people we want to involve? In this respect, the Master Gardening program has been a major success. Its success may be due to the idea of community enhancement that characterizes this program. Beautification builds on the idea of developing a sense of pride in one's community and a commitment to improve and enhance it in the interest of the public good.

Integration in 4-H

A second significant way in which 4-H has changed over the years is in the integration of clubs. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, some 4-H clubs were segregated. In addition, some school clubs were segregated until 1975 because schools remained segregated. Since 1965 the federal 4-H program has vowed to desegregate the program (Rasmussen, 1989). Today, the 4-H program is committed to serving all youth within a community. Nonetheless, the stereotype of 4-H as an organization of white, rural youth has often been difficult to overcome. Since most communities tend to be homogeneous and the club model is usually based within the community, developing a diverse club membership is difficult.

Many Extension agents strive to find creative ways to encourage all youth to feel welcome and to participate freely in the program. In this respect, the school program has been more effective in reaching a wider audience of youth- including those with physical and learning disabilities. Because the majority of young people attend public schools, school-based programming has made 4-H more effective in drawing in those students who are otherwise difficult to recruit. We continue to find ways to reach out to a broader range of groups and adding breadth to our public image.

The 1995 Public Perception of Extension Study by Warner, Christenson, Dillman, and Salant found that minorities, young people, and persons with low levels of education and income are less likely to use Extension services. In 1994, there were approximately 20.3 percent of non-white youth between the ages of eight and 18 (U.S. Bureau of Statistics, 1994). The 4-H membership from that year shows 24 percent of the 4-H membership was non-white (Annual 4-H Youth Development Enrollment, 1994). These statistics demonstrates that 4-H is making inroads in including all youth in their programs.

Financial Support

Although Smith-Lever funds have provided a basic level of support for 4-H, the combination of public and private funding has ebbed and flowed over the years. In 1973, for the first time, Congress earmarked funds for 4-H programs in urban areas and for 4-H rural community development. Funding for 4-H was more precarious after the Act of 1977. 4-H was not mentioned in the legislation, causing some law makers and administrators to question the continuation of financial support. The Agriculture and Food Act of 1981 corrected the omission in the 1977 Food and Agriculture Act. The amendment specifically lists youth development, including 4-H clubs as part of Extension's mission. 4-H funding continues today, in the farm bill, although it is not always mentioned by name (Sanderson, 1988). In the President's Proposed Budget for 1999, increased funds are recommended for "children, youth and families at-risk " (FY 1999 President's Budget Proposal, 1998).

Researchers studied the correspondence from Cooperative Extension to state and federal legislatures, county commissioners and other policy makers. They found the predominant message in the correspondence presents Extension as an agency that primarily serves production agriculture. Yet, that image does not reflect the public's perception. The public sees 4-H as the most prominent Extension program. Neither does that image reflect the actual spending of Extension's resources (Warner & Christenson, 1984).

Traditionally 4-H has depended on private sources, and as the number of alumni increases, it is reasonable to expect this trend to continue. Alumni and private sources continue to donate funds to state and county programs. According to one 4-H agent (E. Horning, personal communication, February 27, 1997) financial support in some communities is so strong that programming could continue for several years if government funds were eliminated.

Volunteers in 4-H

Since its beginning, 4-H has depended on volunteers. A significant challenge has been the decline in the volunteer base both in time and numbers in many communities. In this sense 4-H is having to grapple with demographic changes in American society, i.e. dual earner households and changing family structures (Rasmussen, 1989).

According to 1994 national program statistics, there were about two female volunteers to each male volunteer and 89 percent of the volunteers were white (Annual 4-H Youth Development Enrollment, 1994). Leaders provide the local expertise in subject areas as well as offering adult mentoring in most clubs. To replace the volunteers with paid staff would require a substantial increase in budget. In Centre County, Pennsylvania, it was conservatively estimated we would need more than $240,000 to replace volunteers with paid staff. There are reasons other than financial to maintain the local adult volunteer model. The model allows individuals to strengthen their leadership skills. Many are willing to contribute their talents and skills who do not wish to join the paid work force. Strategies for expanding the volunteer base could include modifying the traditional role expectation and reaching out to a broader spectrum of volunteers (e.g. urban, minority, and college students). Just as we need to increase the diversity of our youth members, so do we have to broaden the volunteer base.

Program Staff

The traditional county Extension office houses a half or full time program staff person devoted to 4-H and youth work. It is not unusual for youth agents to hold masters degrees. In the 1970s several universities including Kansas State, Maryland, Purdue, Rutgers, and Wisconsin developed curricula for educating future Extension agents, signaling a recognition of youth work as a profession with training content and academic credentials on par with agriculture and family living. Today, many land-grant universities offer degrees and course work in youth programming. Most programs include teaching techniques geared toward Extension education, youth development, and principles of adult education. The National Association of Extension 4-H Agents provides training development workshops- thus raising the youth agent to a respected, professional level in the organization (Warner & Christenson, 1984).

New Educational Tools

"Learning by Doing" is a vital teaching technique in 4-H. This hands-on mode of informal education is a powerful learning tool. Learners participating in active learning have a much higher retention rate than learners who listen to a lecture. Because interactive learning is time consuming, trade schools and traditional classrooms typically do not have the luxury to explore this style of learning. In this sense, 4-H complements classroom instruction by providing an environment where theory, new ideas, and skills can be thoroughly explored and mastered.

Over the years the tools we use to enhance learning have changed. Today, 4-H members learn through television, videotapes, and computers (Rasmussen, 1989). Using television as a learning tool was first introduced in 1957 when Michigan State University Extension produced the first television programs for nine- to eleven-year-olds. "Mulligan Stew," the most successful Extension television program, was developed in the 1970s, financed by EFNEP (Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program), and developed by the Federal Extension Service in cooperation with several state Extension Services. The series, aimed at promoting better nutrition among young people, has reached millions of youngsters (Rasmussen, 1989). Even in 1994, 24 years after the development of "Mulligan Stew," 4,109 4-H members are enrolled in the program (Annual 4-H Youth Development Enrollment, 1994). Despite the success of "Mulligan Stew," 4-H and Extension have turned from television films to videotapes because of their versatility and cost effectiveness.

Computers are the new uncharted territory for the 4-H program. Iowa Cooperative Extension has a Web page designed by 4-Hers with an attractive, rotating 4-H clover. The University of California Cooperative Extension and the State 4-H Program at the University of Tennessee have jointly worked on an experimental project to disseminate 4-H project materials by putting these materials on the Internet (Risdon & Ostergard, 1995). By staying current and taking advantage of the new information technology these programs enable interested people in the United States and all over the world to know about 4-H and make decisions about its relevance to their communities and young people.


4-H is the most highly recognized of all Cooperative Extension programs. In the 1982 Public Perception Study of Cooperative Extension, 77% of those surveyed were aware of the 4-H program (Warner & Christenson, 1984). When the same study was repeated in 1994, the number of people aware of the 4-H program declined to 69%. Even with the decline, 4-H remains the most visible Extension program (Warner & Christenson, 1996).

If it continues to meet the challenges of changing times, 4-H will remain a vital youth organization in the future. The challenge is to meet the needs of tomorrow's youth while still maintaining a commitment to the philosophy and historical strengths of the 4-H program. In many communities, there are several other activities and organizations for youth such as scouts, YWCA and YMCA, and Little League. Even with competing and/or complementary activities, 4-H continues to offer unique opportunities that are appealing to a segment of the youth population. Its roots are strong and well embedded in the American culture.

If the 4-H program wants to be a force in the future, it needs to be progressive and adaptive to new trends and ideas, reaching youth from all cultures, races, ethnic groups, and income levels. It needs to continue to address the issues that face today's youth such as drug, tobacco, and alcohol abuse and violence. Many county and state 4-H programs are understaffed and, like most youth programs, could readily use new funds for expansion, project development, and leader enhancement. Volunteer leaders are still essential. The key to attracting and keeping volunteers is to provide training opportunities that not only strengthen the 4-H program, but will provide the leader with marketable skills such as fund raising, group facilitation, organization, and management. We need to expand successful activities such as the 4-H camping program which provides an opportunity for youth to apply and expand their leadership skills and to use the decision making process. In conclusion, all signs point to a bright future for the 4-H program with endless opportunities to be a premier youth organization.


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Annual 4-H youth development enrollment report, 1994 fiscal year (1995). Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture/Cooperative State, Research, Education and Extension Service and Land-Grant University Cooperative Extension Services.

United States Department of Agriculture/Cooperative State, Research, Education and Extension Service. (1998). FY 1999 President's Budget Proposal [WWW page]. URL http://www.reeusda.gov/new/budget/ webfund.htm.

Vines, C., & Anderson, M. (eds.). (1976). Heritage Horizon, Extension's Commitment to People. Madison, WI: Journal of Extension.

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