February 2008 // Volume 46 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA6

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Improving the Reputation of Cooperative Extension as a Source of Prevention Education for Youth and Families: The Effects of the PROSPER Model

Has the reputation of the Cooperative Extension Service (CES) changed over time as a result of its involvement in PROSPER, a community-based partnership designed to provide evidence-based prevention education programs? With deficits facing federal and state governments, budget cuts continue to threaten the viability and growth of CES. Moreover, changing legislative priorities make it easy for CES youth and family programs to be forgotten by policy makers. Thus, increasing the positive reputation of CES as an important and effective force in making the lives of youth and families better is essential for growing CES's stakeholder advocate base.

Claudia Mincemoyer
Associate Professor
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania

Daniel Perkins
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania

Patricia Mei-Mei Ang
Doctoral Candidate
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania

Mark. T. Greenberg
Bennett Chair of Prevention Research
Director, Prevention Research Center
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania

Richard L. Spoth
F. Wendell Miller Senior Prevention Scientist
Director, Partnerships in Prevention Science Institute
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa

Cleve Redmond
Senior Research Scientist, Partnerships in Prevention Science Institute
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa

Mark Feinberg
Senior Research Associate, Prevention Research Center
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania


Using a randomized trial design, the study reported here examined how community partnerships led by Cooperative Extension Service (CES) educators affected the reputation of the CES about provision of youth and family prevention programming. The PROSPER (PROmoting School-Community-University Partnerships to Enhance Resilience) multi-level partnership model led by CES educators is intended to build community capacity to deliver evidence-based family and youth interventions (Spoth, Greenberg, Bierman, & Redmond, 2004). The model involves local community teams that are provided with continuous, proactive technical assistance through state land-grant universities. In the current project, PROSPER's main goals are to reduce rates of early substance use and problem behavior, as well as to promote positive youth development and family competences (Spoth, Greenberg, Bierman, & Redmond, 2004).

PROSPER Partnership Model

Structurally, PROSPER entails a three-tier community-university partnership model (see Spoth & Greenberg, 2005; Spoth et al., 2004). Community-based teams are led by local Extension educators and co-led by school personnel. The Extension educators serve as linking agents between the local team and university-based prevention specialists and resources. Relatively small in size, these strategic teams include representatives from CES, local schools, community agencies, parents, and youth. The PROSPER teams were designed to achieve a focused set of intervention goals across a number of developmental phases, as described in an earlier article (Spoth & Greenberg, 2005).

As with other models of partnership processes (Chinman, Imm, & Wandersman, 2004; Florin, Mitchell, Stevenson, & Klein, 2000; Hawkins, Catalano, & Arthur, 2002), we posit a partnership model in which local community teams proceed through a series of broad developmental phases (Livit, 2004; Stevenson & Mitchell, 2003). The first phase, the organizational phase, usually lasts for 6 to 8 months and entails partnership formation activities, including recruiting key members, receiving training in the model, deciding on programming goals based on local needs and resources, and coalescing as a team. The second phase, the initial operations phase, consists of implementing chosen programs and/or policies; its length may depend on the program being implemented, duration of initial funding, and other considerations. In PROPSER this phase lasts 2-3 years. The third broad phase, which overlaps with phase 2, is described as the "early sustainability phase." This phase focuses on sustaining the effective activities of the local partnership and often involves engaging other community entities to create a more permanent structure for the team's operations and sponsored activities; it is followed by an ongoing operations and sustainability phase, moving toward institutionalization of the partnership.

This article summarizes findings on changes in perception of the role of the CES between the initiation of local PROSPER teams (pretest or Wave 1 data collection) and the ongoing operations and sustainability phase 30 months later (termed Wave 4). By Wave 4, teams have implemented both an evidence-based, family-focused intervention and an evidence-based intervention in the school setting. Local teams selected interventions from short menus of similar evidence-based interventions appropriate for 6th graders and their families and classroom programs appropriate for 7th graders. Initial findings have demonstrated positive effects of PROSPER in randomly-assigned intervention communities compared to controls on child-reported proximal family relations (e.g., parental management of child behavior and parent-child affective quality) and substance use (see Spoth et al., 2007).

From the project's outset, local teams were provided with ongoing and proactive technical assistance by Prevention Coordinators (PCs) who have substantial experience in prevention science or CES programming; PCs serve as liaisons between university researchers and local teams. PCs also provide TA on a variety of topics, including collaborative team development and leadership; guidance concerning preventive intervention selection, family recruitment, and implementation; working with community leaders; and research issues. More detail on technical assistance procedures and positive model implementation findings can be found in earlier reports (Spoth et al., 2004).

Why Cooperative Extension?

Cooperative Extension historically has carried out its mission to encourage healthy development of youth and families through research-based community educational programs (Molgaard, 1997). Although Extension began as a program for rural families, 21st century Extension now addresses almost every aspect of people's lives, regardless of where they reside (ECOP, 2003). Extension personnel provide an important link between university researchers and community-based practitioners by translating research into practice. Skilled at needs assessment and program development, Extension personnel are able to identify relevant research-based programming to address community problems (Russell, 1991).

CES is the only community-based organization with a direct connection to the research expertise of the land-grant university and has a history of effective and extensive collaborative networking among community agencies and institutions who serve youth and families (Coward, VanHorn, & Jackson, 1986). Warner, Hinrich, Schneyer, and Joyce (1998) suggest that a key role for Cooperative Extension personnel is one that facilitates community partnerships to solve problems. Research on university-Extension-community partnerships supports Extension's role as collaborative partner in prevention education with other community agencies (Goldberg, Spoth, Meek, & Molgaard, 2001; Spoth & Molgaard, 1999).

Federal funds, in recent years have contributed a smaller portion to the total Extension budget, leaving state and local governments to make up the difference or requiring Extension to eliminate programs and services (McDowell, 2004). Because of these developments, it has been suggested that Extension increase its viability and visibility by strengthening local and state support for youth and family programs through enhanced marketing, delivery of programs that are proven effective with documented outcomes, and partnering to avoid duplication of services and programming (McDowell, 2004).

For this to occur, Extension must be seen as a respected, critically important partner in collaborative efforts involving prevention education. Supporting this contention is the CYFAR Organizational Change survey (Betts, Marczak, Peterson, Sewell, & Lipinski, 1998) of Extension personnel across the country. Results from that survey showed Extension's role as a collaborative partner with other community, state, and federal organizations enhanced credibility about work with at-risk groups and was worth the effort required to form partnerships.

A previous study at pretest of PROSPER community team members (Mincemoyer, Perkins, & Lilehoj, 2004) had two key results: (1) there was agreement among team members that CES had a positive reputation for providing services to youth and families, and (2) there was agreement that CES was committed to providing prevention programs. Approximately one-third of the community members in PROSPER and comparison communities, however, did not view CES as a leading force in the community for providing youth and family prevention programming. The current study is a follow-up to the Mincemoyer and colleagues (2004) study, entailing interviews with the same community members in both PROSPER and comparison communities. The unit of analysis used in the current study is the community, to account for changes in both time and condition and provide for a more rigorous level of analysis.

The study reported here examined the change in perceptions among community informants 2.5 years following the formation of PROSPER teams and compared these changes to those of community informants who were randomly assigned to a control condition. To follow up on our earlier study, we addressed an important research question. That is, compared to control communities, has the perceived reputation of CES improved over time as a result of its involvement in a PROSPER partnership? We hypothesize that teams' promotion and implementation of youth- and family-programs in their communities through the PROSPER partnership model will affect community informants' perceptions regarding the reputation of Cooperative Extension and its role and leadership in providing programs for family and youth. Additionally, the authors' experiences are that once individuals work with Cooperative Extension, they become much more aware of the organization's capacity.


The study reported here was part of a larger project whose aim is to evaluate the processes and outcomes of the PROSPER model (Spoth et al., 2004). The larger project utilized a randomized controlled design, involving two cohorts (hereafter Cohort 1 and Cohort 2) within 28 communities in Iowa and Pennsylvania. Communities were blocked (matched) on school district size and geographic location. They were then randomly assigned to community partnership intervention and "intervention as usual" comparison conditions, with seven districts from Iowa and Pennsylvania in the intervention condition (N = 14) and an equal number in the control condition.

The school districts were selected, and then the local CES office was approached to see whether they were willing to participate in the study. The control schools were not in the same community as the intervention schools. All 28 communities had CES programs and services; however, only the 14 intervention communities received the PROSPER program. All 28 communities agreed to participate prior to knowing whether they would be in the intervention or the comparison group. Thus, the communities were matched by school size and then randomized for the PROSPER intervention. The community team members (including health and social service providers, school personnel, parents, and youth) in intervention communities were recruited by the county Extension educator (PROSPER team leader) and the local school representative (PROSPER team co-leader).

Community Selection and Assignment

Eligibility criteria for communities considered for the project were (a) school district enrollment, ranging from 1,300 to 5,200, and (b) at least 15% of the student population eligible for free or reduced cost school lunches. Communities in which over half of the population was either employed by or attending a university were excluded, as were communities involved in other university-affiliated prevention projects with youth. Two communities (one per state) withdrew in the first 12 months and were replaced. The 28 study communities consisted of rural towns and small cities across the two states. Populations based on the 2000 census ranged from 6,975 to 44,510.

The participating universities' Offices of Research Protection authorized the study before recruitment began. Community and participant recruitment followed several steps. First, a pool of school districts that met initial eligibility criteria was identified. Then availability of qualified Extension and public school system personnel to serve as local team co-leaders within the pool of districts was considered. Communities that had: (a) a qualified and interested county Extension Family and Consumer Sciences or 4-H educator; (b) a school district willing to participate; and (c) a qualified school staff person to serve as co-leader were recruited to participate.


The full sample of participants included 266 PROSPER individuals within 28 communities located in Iowa and Pennsylvania. In the intervention communities, the individuals consisted of local stakeholders recruited from the PROSPER project teams. Team members include local Cooperative Extension and school representatives, local substance abuse and mental health agency representatives, and parents (youth members were not interviewed). In the control communities, similar representatives from Extension, the schools, and the community were recruited. The goal in the control communities was to recruit the equivalent persons who would have served on a PROSPER team had the community been randomized to receive the partnership-based intervention.

In addition, persons serving as workplace supervisors (e.g., school superintendents or principals, directors of youth and family agencies) were interviewed in both intervention and control communities (from this point forward called agency directors). Participation rates were high across all waves as over 98% of those contacted agreed to participate in the survey at both waves. In the 14 intervention communities, the average number of respondents per team was 11.3 (ranging from 7 to 15). In the 14 control communities, the average number of respondents per team was 6.9 (ranging from 4 to 10).

Because Cooperative Extension educators and their supervisors are directly involved in the PROSPER project, it was expected that these individuals would more favorably evaluate their own organization. In order to create an unbiased sample, Extension educators and directors were removed from the sample (N =44); thus, as noted previously the sample totaled 266 respondents. Of this 266, only respondents who did not have missing data in Waves 1 and 4 were included in the study; therefore, depending on the variable analyzed, the number of respondents with complete data ranged from 173-186 because some respondents did not answer some questions. Respondents ranged in age from 23 to 65 (M = 44.4, SD= 9.52), and 45.2% were male. Ninety four percent of respondents had a college degree and the sample was 99% Caucasian, which is representative of the population in these communities.


As noted earlier, a unique aspect of the PROSPER model is the central role of CES educators, who serve as PROSPER team leaders. Each assessment for Team Members and Agency Directors consisted of a 1-hour face-to-face, computer-assisted interview that assessed individual, community, and workplace characteristics, as well as local team dynamics. Participants were compensated $20 for their participation.

The current report focuses on three longitudinally assessed items that address perceptions of the impact of CES on family and youth services in communities. Each item was scored on a 4-point Likert response scale ranging from 1 = Strongly disagree, to 4 = Strongly agree. The items address: (1) CES's reputation for providing services; (2) CES's commitment to programming; and (3) CES as a leading force for improving the lives of youth and families.

The reputation item was: "The Cooperative Extension Service has a good reputation in this community for providing services to youth and families." The item addressing CES's commitment to programming was: "The Cooperative Extension Service is committed to fostering school- and community-based prevention programs." The final item was: "The Cooperative Extension Service is seen as a leading force in the community in improving the lives of youth and families." Reliability analyses indicated that these items formed an internally consistent three-item scale that was termed "Cooperative Extension Reputation." The Cronbach's alpha was .88 and Wave 1 and .91 at Wave 4. Table 1 summarizes properties of the scale and individual CES items.


These data have a hierarchical structure with repeated measurement; individuals are nested within communities and assessed at two measurement occasions. The use of multilevel modeling (MLM) for our analysis allows us to address both the repeated measurement of individuals and non-independence of individuals within a common community. Individual-level data are considered to be part of the community measurement. MLM provides a methodology to analyze variables from different levels simultaneously while adjusting for the dependency of individuals within communities. Thus, MLM allows for a more complex multi-level of analysis considering both individual and community effects than can be measured using repeated measures or regression analyses.

Fixed effects included at the community level are intervention status (study condition), and socio-economic status (poverty). Because natural change over time in these variables was expected, we included time as a predictor at the individual level. In this model, a significant positive Time x Condition interaction indicates an increase in the reputation of CES across time in the PROSPER communities, relative to control communities.

Table 1 presents the community-level means for both intervention and control communities at both waves. Table 2 presents the results of the hierarchical analysis that examines effects of the PROPSER partnership model implementation in the intervention communities. Results examining the three-item CES reputation scale indicated that Cooperative Extension's reputation among team members and agency directors improved significantly more between Wave 1 and Wave 4 in intervention communities than in control communities (p < .01).

Table 1.
Descriptive Statistics and Alphas for the Cooperative Extension Variables

 Wave 1Wave 4
Variable# of ItemsRangeInterventionControlInterventionControl
1. Total Scale: Reputation of Cooperative Extension31 to 4 
Std. Deviation 0.620.660.450.66
2. Reputation for providing youth and family services.11 to 4 
Mean 3.443.263.693.31
Std. Deviation 0.620.670.500.72
3. Commitment to programming11 to 4 
Mean 3.513.203.753.34
Std. Deviation 0.670.840.510.70
4. As a leading force for improving lives11 to 4 
Mean 2.852.673.372.81
Std. Deviation 0.740.810.650.86

Table 2.
Intervention Impact on Cooperative Extension Variables

 Coop. Extension ReputationReputation for Providing ServicesCommitment to ProgrammingAs a Leading Force for Improving Lives
Fixed effects
Time X Condition0.12**0.040.07#**0.05
Note: *** p < 0.001, ** p < 0.01, * p< 0.05, # p < 0.10; the Satterthwaite degrees of freedom method was utilized all models.

Separate examination of the three individual items indicated that there was a highly significant improvement in the perception of CES as a leading force in the community between Waves 1 and 4 in intervention communities, relative to controls. In addition, there was a trend toward improvement in the perception of CES's reputation as a provider of services in PROSPER communities. There was no improvement across time in PROSPER communities versus controls with regard to the commitment of CES to youth and family services; however, there was a mean difference favoring PROSPER communities, suggesting that Cooperative Extension was viewed more favorably on this measure at Wave 1 and remained so at Wave 4.

Limitations of the Study

One limitation of the study is the relatively small sample size. Because the level of analysis was the community, there were only 14 communities in the intervention group and 14 communities in the control group. Another limitation is the potential for social desirability bias from the community informants to provide positive responses about CES during the interviews. Because many community professionals work closely with CES personnel, they may not want to provide negative feedback regarding the youth and family programming provided by CES. This concern is mitigated by the strict confidentiality of the responses to the survey.

Discussion/Implications of Study

Meeting the complex needs of today's families, in a time when there are fewer resources to address the growing demands on community services, requires multiple sectors of a community to collaborate to address these issues. Thus, the effective prevention, intervention, and treatment of social problems should involve multiple systems, ranging from the individual and the family, to social service agencies, law enforcement, employers, schools, and health care providers. Utilizing a carefully constructed, randomized design this study is the first experimental evidence to suggest that utilizing models derived from the literature on prevention intervention science, CES can not only produce improved outcomes for youth (Spoth et al., 2007) but also improve its reputation as an important resource for services to youth and families among community members and leaders.

We believe that there are a number of specific aspects of the PROSPER model that are associated with the observed positive effects. First, PROSPER is based on the tenet that implementing evidenced-based programs with quality is essential to the "research to practice" translational model that is the basis of the CES. Second, we emphasize the importance of the three-tiered model that includes the use of CES-supported Prevention Coordinators who work very closely with local teams to provide proactive and ongoing technical assistance. Third, we highlight the importance of small, focused, strategic teams in which CES and the local schools share responsibility, but also include as essential partners local community agencies, important stakeholders, parents, and youth. In part, the noted improvement in reputation of CES in the PROSPER communities is likely associated with the PROSPER programming conducted in these communities, programming resulting in positive outcomes for these communities when compared to the control communities (who did not receive the PROSPER programming).

With deficits and other economic issues facing the federal and many state governments, budget cuts continue to threaten the viability and growth of CES. Moreover, changing legislative priorities make it easy for the youth and family programmatic area of CES to be forgotten by policy makers. Thus, increasing the effectiveness and positive reputation of CES as an important and effective force in improving the lives of youth and families is essential for growing CES's stakeholder advocate base. The current study finds that through the strategic partnerships formed within the PROSPER model, Cooperative Extension's reputation among key community stakeholders increases significantly.

Strategic partnerships are recommended as a means to develop strong collaborative relationships to improve the present status and future well-being of children, youth, families, and the communities in which they live (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1992, 1995; Perkins, Borden, & Hogue, 1998). Indeed, many local, state, and federal initiatives focused on children, youth, and families now require collaboration among multiple sectors (Borden, 1999). The PROSPER partnership model demonstrates the important role that CES personnel can effectively play as collaboration leaders in the implementation of evidence-based programs.

Providing further evidence of the significance of the PROSPER model, all 14 intervention sites have been successful in generating local funds to fully sustain both programming and team activities for 2 years following the withdrawal of grant-supported funding. In addition, several of the Extension educators have been contacted by other community agencies because of the perceived expertise that they possess related to prevention science and are in the process of developing new PROSPER partnerships in neighboring communities.

Given the increased demands for implementing evidence-based programming in schools as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act and increased demands for accountability at local, state, and federal levels, PROSPER provides one model of how CES can establish itself as an essential leader in carrying out such high quality prevention programming through community-based partnerships. Plans are in place for the PROSPER model to be replicated in several states across the country. A PROSPER Overview Manual describes PROSPER and how extension educators in other states can implement the PROSPER model. Contact one of the authors for information for a copy of the manual and information on how to implement PROSPER.


The authors wish to acknowledge the National Institute on Drug Abuse (1 R01 DA013709-01A1) for their support of the PROSPER project.


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