Published on 2019/05/13

The EvoLLLution | Placing 4-H Within The 21st-Century Land-Grant Mission
Working with Cooperative Extension Services—specifically with 4-H programs—can help universities create a pipeline of students and significantly increase diversity on campus.

In the 2018 book “Land-Grant Universities for the Future: Higher Education for the Public Good,” Ohio State professor Stephen Gavazzi and West Virginia president E. Gordon Gee sought to clarify the 21st-century mission of America’s land-grant universities. Interviews with 27 land-grant presidents and chancellors generated a core set of themes related to the current strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing our nation’s first public universities, with special emphasis on the ways in which these institutions were meeting the needs of communities.

The book also featured discussions on how land-grant universities can connect with their community stakeholders through Cooperative Extension Services. In an earlier article in The EvoLLLution, Gavazzi and Gee discussed the evolving impact of Cooperative Extension Services with colleagues from their respective universities—Roger Rennekamp of OSU Extension, and Steve Bonanno of WVU’s Extension Services.

Additionally, “Land-Grant Universities for the Future” contains explicit reference to 4-H, the youth development programming delivered by Cooperative Extension through a network of 3,500 professionals and 500,000 volunteers. Gavazzi and Gee join with Jennifer Sirangelo and Karen Pittman to discuss some of the most promising new initiatives coming out of 4-H that align with the 21st-century land-grant mission. Prominent in this regard is the work currently underway within 4-H that focuses on social and economic mobility in rural America, as well as 4-H’s more recent efforts to intensify their programmatic impact on youth residing in more urbanized settings. 

The EvoLLLution: What are some of the challenges that universities typically face when it comes to creating accessible and relevant programming for K-12 learners?

Gordon Gee (GG): One of the biggest problems is that universities largely have become disconnected from public education. Some of this disconnect has come about through arrogance. Here, universities are operating under the assumption that they can simply sit back and wait for the K-12 system to do its work before receiving its students for a final round of educational polish. Universities should be actively creating relationships and partnerships with public educators. In fact, they should be getting back into the business of creating laboratory schools, especially regarding the development of innovative models that unite educators from campuses and communities in the common purpose of educating our youth.

Jennifer Sirangelo (JS): There must be a value placed on doing this kind of outreach work at the leadership level, including the sort of outreach work into the community that creates a pipeline into the university. You see businesses and industries across the spectrum investing in building a pipeline for the workforce and their customers. University leaders can look to these models for effective strategies that allow for similar long-term planning.

Karen Pittman (KP): First, universities need to be clear about the skills and competencies that are necessary to be successful in a college environment and beyond. That sort of clarity then allows individuals to back up and figure out where along the pipeline all youth should be acquiring those skills and competencies. If universities don’t do that, then they will continue to face challenges in the areas of equity and diversity.

Evo: How does the mission and work of 4-H align with land-grant universities and their Cooperative Extension Services?

Stephen Gavazzi (SG): 4-H is a program run by Cooperative Extension Services, and Extension was established through the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, the third of three major congressional actions that formed the basis for our three-part land grant mission. As we noted repeatedly in the Land-Grant Universities for the Future book, land-grant institutions must transcend the urban-rural divide by focusing on what is good and right for all our nation’s communities, regardless of their geographic location. Cooperative Extension Services in general and 4-H programming more specifically must help land-grant universities achieve that objective. In 1914, undoubtedly there was a major focus on rural youth and more agriculturally based activities. In our modern era, we are witnessing some significant growth in 4-H programming that reaches youth in more urbanized locations. For that reason, 4-H now represents one of the land-grant university’s best efforts to connect the urban-rural divide.

JS: In layman’s terms, Cooperative Extension has been given the mission of bringing the university’s research to the people in the form of practical knowledge and hands-on application. This was meant to ensure that all citizens have access to this knowledge base, not just those that lived near big cities or the universities themselves. 4-H is in every county of every state, and therefore is well positioned to serve as a direct channel for increased access and equity, expanding the diverse range of students who enroll in land-grant universities.

KP: When I think of the relationships among 4-H programming, Cooperative Extension Services and the land-grant universities, I think about them in terms of being among the earliest examples of research-practice partnerships. Historically, this has been a very important commitment to communities, providing direct assistance in terms of helping to evaluate what works inside of youth development programming. And we need to see an increase in these sorts of activities, especially because the science of our youth development work is expanding so rapidly.

 Evo: Why is 4-H programming relevant in the 21st century?

GG:4-H is character centered and youth centered with a clear sense of purpose, so in some respects the value of 4-H is timeless. I can speak from personal experience here. I greatly valued my own 4-H experiences during my formative years. I believe 4-H first instilled in me the value of community, and it also provided some of my earliest opportunities to work with peers as part of a team, for example. Our nation always needs citizens who are closely connected to the needs of their communities, and workplaces always need employees who can work together as teammates.

JS:One of the most important roles that 4-H plays today is in working alongside the nation’s public school system. As an organization founded by educators, 4-H knows schools cannot do it alone. Across the U.S., 4-H is able to support and enhance what is happening in the classroom through hands-on leadership experiences that are proven to develop their skills and ability to lead. This kind of leadership development has always been important to our country’s well-being, but we believe this work is even more relevant now. We need leaders who engage others, who have confidence in their own abilities, who think about the needs of others and are giving back to their communities. The role of 4-H is to the develop community members who are civic-minded individuals with valuable strengths and real influence to improve the world around us.

KP:The verdict is in, both from the business community and from higher education. They are looking for young people who have a broader set of skills and competencies, not just academic abilities. They are looking for young people with character, who have a clear value space, who have a sense of ethics and responsibilities, and who have experience in working with communities. This is the work that 4-H does.

Evo: What are the benefits for land-grant universities in general and more specifically for Cooperative Extension Services in forging stronger partnerships with 4-H organizations?

SG: Among other things, 4-H activities represent tremendous value in terms of being great feeder programs for universities. Historically, youth who have developed a strong affiliation with 4-H programs in turn often will aspire to attend land-grant institutions. Also, as we noted in a previous issue of The EvoLLLution, Cooperative Extension Services must be among the leading partners in efforts to engage communities of each state. This involvement must be designed to lift up the many and varied stakeholders living in those communities, including of course those youth who reside there.

JS: More and more conversations at the leadership level are about the role institutions play in economic mobility. I think this includes the various ways that first-generation students and other citizens can find an academic home in the land-grant university system. There is clear benefit in telling the story of how this access to higher education and economic mobility starts long before the time that a student walks onto campus. Forging stronger partnerships with 4-H organizations would allow university leaders to enhance this economic mobility pipeline.

KP:Now more than ever, families are questioning the value of investing in postsecondary education, and in particular the worth of a four-year degree. In response, anything that the university could do to strengthen its pipeline into high schools and middle schools would seem to be of great benefit. And not just to say that there is a place that someone could go, but rather that there was a place that was specifically designed for them, that welcomes them and has a commitment to the needs of young people and the communities from which they come. 

Evo: What is 4-H aiming to achieve over the next five to 10 years?

GG: Staff and volunteers need to get out of their box, out of their comfort zone, and step into the wider world where they can make a tremendous difference in the lives of traditionally-underserved youth who may not have engaged with 4-H in the past. This includes more contact with urban youth, of course, but also means that 4-H programs should touch on more contemporary issues that relate to all youth regardless of their geographic location. The opioid crisis in this country, for example, is ripe for the involvement of 4-H programming.

JS: Of the 53 million school-age youth in the U.S. today, 4-H and its peer organizations only serve 18 million in out-of-school time. This leaves out 35 million youth who could benefit from positive youth development. By 2025, we have a vision that 4-H will be reaching 10 million of America’s young people, which would be one in five youth living in our nation. Today, we reach about 6 million young people. We know—given our size, our scope and significant public funding—we have the ability to do this. We are currently implementing strategies that improve the system’s ability to increase access and equity for diverse youth in all communities. This means reaching more young people in urban areas, and deepening our relationships with rural populations, including those minority youth living in rural areas. We know that having high-quality involvement in 4-H programming moves youth forward on the ladder of economic mobility—and improves not just their own well-being but also the well-being of their communities through their contributions of civic engagement.

KP: The Forum for Youth Investment has always been known for its commitment to making sure that young people are ready for college, work and life. This means these youth have a broad range of competencies that have been developed, honed and used in a broad range of experiences, including but not limited to schools. Because of that commitment, we have been both an advocate for and a part of this broader youth development field, bringing partners together both nationally and more locally. The 4-H goal of reaching one in five youth in America is the kind of bold numerical commitment many of our national youth organizations are making. The Forum’s commitment is to ensure that these kinds of goals are made in a coordinated way so that, at the end of the day, we really have served more young people with more high-quality program experiences.

Evo: How can land-grant universities and Cooperative Extension Services better support 4-H programming in the years to come?

SG: Universities must examine their priorities and decide where and how they can have the greatest impact on our country. As noted in the Land-Grant Universities for the Future book, some land-grant universities have drifted quite some distance away from their original mission. So, a part of a land-grant university getting back to its roots is a reaffirmation of support for and involvement in 4-H programming.

JS: I see two opportunities. First, assessing the distribution of Cooperative Extension Services resources and ensuring those who need it most are being served. Second, to continue providing critical professional development opportunities, like cultural competency, for staff to better serve the variety of diverse communities across America.

KP: I would take this back to the fact that Cooperative Extension Services exists inside of land-grant universities that have made a commitment to increased diversity. And I would encourage these universities to hold themselves numerically accountable. To not only make these verbal commitments, but to begin to discuss where they are and where they are not making progress by referring to data that has been gathered about various efforts to make themselves more diverse. That would include evaluative information about activities inside of Extension efforts in general and more specifically within their 4-H programming.

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Key Takeaways

  • It’s essential for postsecondary institutions to conduct outreach work in their communities and become more involved in public education to create a pipeline of students.
  • Due to their statewide presence, 4-H programs are well-positioned to bring more student diversity to land-grant universities and connect the urban-rural divide.
  • By creating stronger partnerships with 4-H organizations, universities can help enhance the social and economic mobility in rural areas.