Cooperative Extension: What it is and how it can serve you.
~Guest blog post by doctoral candidate, Peyton Beattie~
Definitions for bolded words can be found at the end of the post.
Jacqueline reached out to me to ask if I would share some information about the nature and purpose of Cooperative Extension. I am by no means an expert but a definite enthusiast on this topic. In this post, we will discuss why Cooperative Extension was created, what it looks like today and some of my thoughts about where Cooperative Extension can go in the future.
The more common term you will hear is Extension. The word Extension is often used interchangeably with Cooperative Extension. So, why is the word 'Cooperative' associated with Extension? Well, Extension is a cooperation between local (county government), state (land-grant university), and the federal government (USDA NIFA) – aka Extension gets its money from the county/parish government, state government, AND federal government to function. Therefore, as explained in the book Education through Cooperative Extension by Seevers & Graham, "it is an extension of the USDA and an outreach partner of the land-grant institution of each state with a role of reaching people and extending knowledge and other resources to those, not on campus." The land-grant university in each state is an essential piece of the puzzle because it acts as the 'home base' for Extension.
I will use the state of Florida as an example here. The University of Florida is the 1862 land-grant institution in Florida, we will get to the other types of land-grant institutions here in a minute. Thus, the Extension system in Florida is called the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). There are faculty at the university in Gainesville and at Research and Education Centers (RECs) around the state who conduct research to discover new knowledge to be shared to improve things like nutritional diets, crop production, conservation efforts, youth development, to name a few. This knowledge is then shared with the Extension agents in the 67 counties across the state to create change in their communities. The Extension agents are employees of UF/IFAS but are located in their local communities at an Extension office (there is one Extension office in every county in Florida).
Now the next question you might ask is, why was Extension created? Extension was designed to take the research and innovations from the land-grant universities and disseminate this knowledge to the "common" people of local communities so that they had the opportunity to be educated and adopt these practices or ideas. This was also thought of as 'taking the university to the people.' As such, the term Extension agent comes from these individuals acting as change agents in their communities. Some states still use the term Extension agent, and many states have adopted the term Extension educator as they play a huge non-formal education role in their communities.
Extension is recognized as a huge non-formal education system for both adult and youth audiences. Many would say, "Extension is the best-kept secret." I, and plenty others involved in Extension at some capacity, have heard this statement numerous times. Extension began in 1862 at land-grant institutions. In 1890, eighteen black-serving institutions received funding for their "separate but equal" land-grant institutions. Then again, in 1994, twenty-nine tribal colleges were provided funding for land-grant institutions for the American Indian people. This is important to note because Extension is present at all three types of land-grant institutions today. There are 15,000 plus employees of Extension, and much of the employee make-up is Extension agents/educators (61.9%). State faculty make up 30.8% of the employees in Extension while 7.8% of employees have administrative roles. These numbers were recorded ten years ago, so they have likely fluctuated a bit since then.
Extension today keeps the foundational roots of what Extension was created for, however, it does look a little different. Extension's goal is still to use the knowledge being discovered at the land-grant university to further develop local communities through educational programs. When Extension first started, the focus was largely on improving agricultural practices because much of the U.S. was agriculturally focused at the time. Today, Extension recognizes four program areas: (1) agriculture and natural resources, (2) family and consumer sciences, (3) 4-H youth development, and (4) community and economic development. Some states may recognize other program areas based on the needs of the state. For example, UF/IFAS has Sea Grant agents that focus on coastal conservation in Florida. In my home state of Louisiana, we had aquaculture agents in many southern parishes because the seafood and aquaculture industry in southern Louisiana is huge.
Extension has overcome some significant obstacles that have occurred in the U.S. since it was started in 1914 (that's 106 years!). But just like anything else in the world, there is always room for opportunity. Some areas of opportunity that come to mind right now are (1) more integration of instructional and communication technologies as tools for Extension agents/educators to connect with the people in their local communities and (2) more integration between the three land-grant universities (1862, 1890, 1994 institutions) for increased diversification of agents/educators to reach larger audiences than we do now. My research agenda aligns with point #1, and it has been such a huge passion of mine that I decided to write my dissertation on the topic. There is an abundance of literature that agrees that Extension should become more innovative in the ways that educational programs are delivered. I just feel like we (i.e., Extension) have not dedicated the resources needed to achieve these goals adequately. This comes from the perspective of an outsider looking in. From the inside looking out, they could be doing all that they can. In my personal opinion, I think there should be a more focused effort in this regard. Maybe that would be someone hired to solely focus on integrating and adopting instructional and communication technologies in Extension and helping train and develop Extension agents to be successful in the implementation of the technologies in their program. I could be biased? (That is the exact job I would love to have!)
Moving on to point 2. Some states have taken a more integrated approach to blending their Extension systems to incorporate the 1862, 1980, and 1994 land-grant universities and some states have chosen to remain separate but equal (equal used loosely here). Alabama, for example, has chosen the more integrated approach and has chosen to be the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service but include both Alabama A&M (1890) and Auburn University (1862). I see the incorporation of multiple universities as a benefit for various reasons. The most recent reason on my mind is the increased diversification of types of Extension agents/educators we would have connecting with local communities. I was analyzing my dissertation data the other day and found that the agents/educators who took my survey (660 agents/educators from 8 states across the U.S.) were mostly female (76%) and white (79%). I think it is safe to say we need some diversification. I believe reaching larger and different audiences starts with having our agents/educators be representative of the populations that we are trying to reach.
I hope that after reading this, Extension is no longer "the best-kept secret" to you and that you gained a little bit of Extension history (trust me, this was only a piece of it!) and have some inspiration to be a part of the Extension system in some way. The world is always changing, therefore, there will always be a need for Extension (change) agents and educators.
Maybe next time we get together, we can talk more about land-grant universities, because that is another subject I can really nerd-out about!! Thanks for reading!
Glossary of Terms
Change agent - someone who initiates or manages a change
Non formal education - this is educational experiences that occur outside of a traditional/formal classroom setting
Dissertation - is an academic exercise that you spend about a whole year of your life writing, collecting data, and more writing; equal parts awful and fulfilling
Below are some of my go-to sources that I would suggest reading if you are interested on the topic!
Alabama Cooperative Extension Service. (n.d.). About us. https://www.aces.edu
Campbell, J. R. (1998). Reclaiming a lost heritage. Michigan State University.
Florida Sea Grant and University of Florida. (n.d.). About us. https://www.flseagrant.org
Rasmussen, W. D. (1989). Taking the university to the people: Seventy-five years of Cooperative Extension. Iowa State University Press.
Seevers, B., & Graham, D. (2012). Education through Cooperative Extension. University of Arkansas Bookstore.
UF/IFAS. (2019). UF/IFAS briefing book. https://ifas.ufl.edu/media/ifasufledu/ifas-dark-blue/docs/ADMIN_IFAS_BriefingBook2019.web.pdf