August 2005 // Volume 43 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB2

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Assessing the Educational Needs and Interests of the Hispanic Population: The Role of Extension

Hispanics are the fastest growing minority group in the United States and face unique problems concerning language and citizenship. However, institutions do not yet know how best to deliver services to this group or understand what services are needed. Although many programs designed for Hispanics exist, especially in urban areas, there is little documentation that they have been evaluated and are successful in serving the population they target. The focus group study described here was conducted to better understand what kind of information Hispanics in an urban setting are seeking and how best to disseminate information to them.

Susan Farner
Department of Community Health
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

M. Elena Rhoads
Department of Community Health, College of Medicine
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

German Cutz
University of Illinois Extension

Barbara Farner
University of Illinois Extension

The Hispanic population is the fastest growing and largest minority group in the United States. This rapid population growth is also reflected in Illinois, where the percent of the total Hispanic population has increased from 9.6% in 1996 to 13.4% in 2002 (US Census Bureau, 2002). For this population to thrive in Illinois, service agencies must assess the needs and interests of the Hispanics and strive to provide appropriate educational programs.

There are several barriers to effective adult education in this population. The first is the language barrier. Agencies lacking bilingual and bicultural staff are limited in reaching the Hispanic population. Another barrier is that Hispanics are among the least formally educated minority groups, with only 52.4% receiving a high school diploma, compared to the national average of 80.2% (US Census Bureau, 2002). These characteristics, combined with a rigorous work schedule, make providing adult education opportunities to this population a challenge to service agencies.

A review of the literature revealed a paucity of studies examining the particular educational needs and interests of this population. University of Illinois Extension was interested in determining how best to facilitate adult education in this population. Focus groups were conducted in urban counties in northeastern Illinois in which 92% of the Hispanic population of the state resides. Bilingual staff conducted the study to allow the Spanish-speaking participants to discuss their needs and interests in their own words. The focus groups addressed the following areas: what information is needed and what is an appropriate design for the educational session?


A qualitative approach using focus groups was planned and executed according to suggestions in Morgan and Kreuger's Focus Group Kit (Morgan & Krueger, 1998). Discussions were designed to explore the kinds of information Hispanics wanted to receive from organizations such as University of Illinois Extension and the best method of delivery.

Focus groups were selected as the preferred method because they allow a comfortable approach to obtaining information directly from the Hispanic participants. Participants are able to share information without feeling compelled or driven to specific answers. The answers come through a discussion of topics rather than a formal interview or a limited survey (Malek, 2002).

Two focus groups were conducted in two different sites, each consisting of 7 participants (3 female, 4 male). Ages ranged from 18-60 in each, and both groups had similar age representation. Researchers targeted participants in a basic computer class provided by University of Illinois Extension. The participants for one of the computer course had been recruited via flyers that were distributed by a local Hispanic coalition. A community leader for the Hispanic population was also involved in direct recruiting of participants. The other group of participants was recruited through a local church where the meeting was held. The participants had basic reading and writing skills with little computer experience.

After gaining access to the population, researchers conducted their study at the end of the weeklong course. A fluent Spanish-speaking graduate student who has worked with low-income Hispanic populations for several years conducted the focus groups in Spanish. Focus groups were held in a separate room before the class began. At least one other researcher was present, and the discussions were audio taped. An Extension educator who is a native Spanish-speaker reviewed the transcriptions to ensure accuracy of translation. The translated material was also reviewed for content by the researchers who had attended the focus group sessions.


Educational Needs

Similar results were gleaned from both focus groups in terms of requested information and method of delivery of the educational session. The participants were eager to learn about various topics such as nutrition, management, and prevention of diseases (i.e., diabetes and heart disease); financial information; improving English language; and computer skills.

Both groups indicated an interest in nutrition and healthcare by giving examples of how this knowledge would benefit them personally. One group member in the first session described his wife who has diabetes and how he would like to learn more about nutrition to help her. One man in the second group told of his recent experience that made him interested in health and nutrition:

Two weeks ago, I went to the doctor, and it turns out that I have high cholesterol. He told me, 'do you eat this and this?' 'Well, yes.' I didn't know. And I have high cholesterol. Sometimes Hispanics don't know, and it is very important.

The need for financial information was discussed in both groups. Many Mexicans come to the United States to work and save money but have not received information on how to manage personal finances. One man stated,

I think we are not prepared financially, educated to do it, in part because we have very low wages. Sometimes what you make is what you spend, and sometimes you do not know how to save it, and here it is different.

There was total agreement that learning English is essential to their success in this country. The participants realize they need to be exposed to an English-speaking environment to increase their comfort with the language to give them access to better jobs and other opportunities. One participant responded to another's hesitating to use English by saying,

. . . we came to this country, we know that in this country we need to speak English, and it is our obligation to learn English, so, for one to take advantage of everything that is here, one must learn English, if you don't want to, well, don't say you can't."

Another said,

It is essential that we know or learn this language. . . there is much need for this. Many times people go to different public places and have to take their children so that they can translate for them because he does not know . . .

Participants were eager to take more computer classes because this knowledge would give them an opportunity to obtain better jobs in addition to benefiting their personal lives. One woman stated,

Well, for example, the computers, this is very basic. I think there is much more to learn, and another thing, for example, typing, many people are slow so how ... a more intense course, more . . . how to learn more in depth about the computer, other programs.

Methods of Delivery

The best method of delivery of information was discussed in both focus groups. Researchers were interested in learning how best to reach the Hispanic population with useful information. The majority in each group decided that structured classes are the best way to present material. Because their schedules are rigorous and home life often busy, they preferred taking a class outside of the home. They agreed that hands-on work was the best way for them to learn and that having an instructor in the classroom was beneficial for them. When one member brought up the need to have time to practice the skills they were learning, another agreed and stated,

Yes, I think that is good . . . we asked for a book and with other classmates we were going to practice that way, to continue, but there are times that because we are alone we get stuck because we didn't know how to do it . . .

Another added,

Yes, it's better to be in a class with an instructor that is telling you because many times if you give us a book or a paper and we go home, sometimes time goes by doing other things and even thought the book is there . . ., but one is more interested when he is in class and is doing the things during class.

From the discussion, it appears that the best format for this group is classroom-based instruction with hands-on work.

The groups agreed that evening times are better for classes because of work schedules and that childcare is often an issue. However, one suggested that, although time is a barrier, if the individual is interested in the class her or she should make the time: "One makes [time]...if there is not [time], you make it." This suggests that although there are scheduling issues that need to be addressed in order to make programs available to Hispanics, it is more important to provide information that they find interesting and useful.

There was also agreement that they would be willing to travel to an unfamiliar location and to pay what they could afford in order to receive information on topics of interest. One woman said in response to the discussion about whether getting to a site where a class is offered was a barrier, "Let's say this . . . it depends on the interest of the person learning . . . it doesn't matter, even walking, if my desire is to better myself, it doesn't matter."

It was suggested to place advertising for courses in local churches where services in Spanish are held and in grocery stores that serve the Hispanic population. In some areas, there are radio or television stations that might be willing to help advertise as well. The participants stated that it is important to build relationships with these local organizations and businesses to strive to increase the credibility of the agency providing the programs and increase participation from the community.


The study described here showed that Hispanics in Illinois are very interested in increasing their knowledge in a variety of topics. Both groups were eager to learn new material and were willing to make sacrifices in order to participate in these classes. Although location and access is important, it is not an overwhelming constraint on participation. The need for and interest in the material to be presented was the main driving force for people to attend educational sessions. The two different groups had similar interests in terms of the educational material to be offered, which included computer classes, financial and nutritional information, and English classes.

University of Illinois Extension has a unique opportunity to provide educational sessions to address the topics the participants requested. The educators in the state have developed much of the subject matter requested by the participants, and the location of Extension in every county provides access to the Hispanic population located in rural as well as urban areas.

The University of Illinois Extension Nutrition and Wellness team has developed educational material for reducing the risk of early onset of diabetes and heart disease and the problem of living with diabetes once the diagnosis has been made. This material is being translated into Spanish, and classes are being developed.

The Family and Consumer Economics team currently has a personal finance class that can be expanded to reach the Hispanic community. The course may require some changes to meet the special needs of the population, but with additional discussions with the Hispanic community, the potential for meeting this need is evident.

Continuation of the current computer classes in which the participants were enrolled must be a priority. There is a large demand for this class because many Hispanics see the need for computer knowledge in their workplaces and their personal lives. Participants were eager to take more advanced courses after completing the beginning computer class.

The importance of developing a relationship with this ethnic group to increase participation in planned events cannot be overstated (Albert, 1996; Skaff, Chelsa, Mycue, & L, 2000). Escobar-Chaves et al. cite experience with one research study during which the researchers had extensive contact with participants in order to retain women in the study. The investigators used bilingual, bicultural staff and found that working with community members was helpful in retaining participants.

It was found that Hispanics are more willing to participate in activities, if urged to do so by others whom they trust (Escobar-Chaves et al., 2002). This emphasizes the need for the agency sponsoring an activity to work with respected local groups and organization. Delgado states the importance of initiating research with co-sponsoring institutions that are visible locally to the community to give the project legitimacy. Having several institutions to sponsor the research, given the institutions have a positive relationship with the community of interest, will help ensure the project meets minimal resistance from the community (Delgado, 1999). The need for agency cooperation should translate to adult education as well as research. Extension should generate this familiarity because of the variety of classes currently offered in the community and the relationships already established with other local agencies.


This study is limited because the two groups involved were convenience samples of adults taking a computer course. These participants were highly motivated and willing to take courses to improve their status. The small number of focus groups also limits the diversity of the participants. Therefore, the study groups may not necessarily represent the Hispanic population in the area, much less the entire population in the state. More focus groups in other areas of the state will be needed to further assess the needs and interests of this population.


Although the number of participants was small, the study presents evidence that Hispanics are motivated to learn and to seek classes in which they are interested. Because Hispanics encounter barriers to attending adult education classes due to their lower socio-economic status and lack of fluency in English, it might be easy to conclude that they are not interested in learning and improving their situation. However, the participants in the study indicated that they were willing to make sacrifices in order to attend classes and are likely to do so if the classes are offered to them. University of Illinois Extension has the potential to provide this rapidly growing population with educational classes to address health concerns, financial issues, and computer literacy. The study explored how best to serve Hispanic communities through adult education so agencies could use the results to develop educational services for this underserved community.


Albert, R. (1996). A framework and model for understanding Latin American and Latino/Hispanic cultural patterns. In D. Landis & R. Bhagat (Eds.), Handbook of intercultural training. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

US Census Bureau (2002). Population characteristics. Washington, D.C: US Census Bureau. Available at

Delgado, M. (1999). Involvement of the Hispanic community in ATOP research. Drugs and Society, 14, 93-105.

Escobar-Chaves, S., Tortolero, S., Masse, L., Watson, K., & Fulton, J. (2002). Recruiting and retaining minority women: Findings from the Women on the Move study. Ethnic Disparity, 12(2), 242-251.

Malek, F. (2002). Using the focus group process to assess the needs of the growing Latino population. Journal of Extension [On-line], 40(1). Available at:

Morgan, D., & Krueger, R. (1998). Focus group kit. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Skaff, M., Chelsa, C., Mycue, V., & L, F. (2000). Lessons in cultural competence: Adapting research methodology for Latino participants. Journal of Community Psychology, 30(3), 305-323.