W1023: Understanding Recruitment and Retention in the 4H Club Program
(Multistate Research Project)
4-H clubs, community centered and largely volunteer driven, have been a staple in high-quality educational program delivery since our organization’s inception. Youth who participate in 4-H earn higher grades, have higher civic engagement, and engage in less risky behavior compared to non-4-H youth (Lerner & Lerner, 2013). Although impressive, positive impacts such as behavior change, can only be made if participants remain in Extension programs, such as 4-H, over time (Pratt & Bowman, 2008). A review of the USDA 4-H enrollment reports (United States Department of Agriculture, 2010) from 1996 to 2003 indicates that 31 (54%) of the states and territories in the US reported declines in 4-H club enrollment. One of the primary indicators for youth dropping out of the 4-H program is being a first-year member (Astroth, 1985; Hamilton, Northern, & Neff, 2014; Harder, Lamm, Lamm, Rose, & Rask, 2005; Hartley, 1983). Other research reveals that dropping out of 4-H occurs because: 1) youth are busy with sports or other organizations, 2) youth are unhappy/unsatisfied with their clubs or projects, and 3) parents are not as involved as other parents in their child’s 4-H experience (Harder, et al., 2005; Hartley, 1983; Ritchie & Resler, 1993). Demographic factors also influence dropout (e.g., gender and years in program; Astroth, 1985, Harder et al., 2005), as well as entering the program as an adolescent (Defore, Fuhrman, Peake, & Duncan, 2011; Ritchie, & Resler, 1993). By learning about these factors, we can increase the number of youth able to fully experience the positive impacts of 4-H programs and thus impact the level of civic engagement in our communities. In addition, recommendations by USDA to increase and expand 4-H membership could be addressed, in part, by youth retention.
This research activity contributes to, and intends to expand, the understanding of why youth dropout of 4-H programs. In addition, the research will explore why youth and families join and stay in the 4-H Youth Development Program (YDP). By learning about these factors we will be better able to develop support materials and systems that will increase the number of youth and families that engage in 4-H (see research questions in the “Objectives” section). Importantly, this research will be conducted across several states. As the demographics and socioeconomics of our society change, 4-H needs to develop the means to better understand and serve their changing communities. A multistate approach will enable the collection of perspectives from a greater diversity of communities, which will yield more generalizable findings. We can then develop steps to implement strategies to both engage and retain more youth in 4-H programming. Consequently, more youth will receive the short- and long-term benefits of 4-H, including the tools (knowledge, attitudes and skills) they need to become competent, caring, and contributing citizens of the world, as well as thriving and successful adults. This research study directly benefits both 4-H youth and families, as well as potential youth and families by improving the program. Further, the finding that a majority of states and territories (54%) experienced a decline in 4-H enrollments from 1996-2003 shows the problem is not limited to one environment and suggests there are robust factors that cut across states. We need to ascertain what factors are contributing to decreased enrollments and find the similarities and differences across states.
The importance of this work
In examining why 4-H enrollment and retention have decreased across the country, this project will fill a variety of gaps in the literature about 4-H involvement. We have yet to understand the underlying reasons that explain 4-H dropout rates. Based on preliminary data in California, we know that many youth are only enrolled in 4-H for one year (approximately 50%). This decreased involvement has implications for the 4-H program. For example, there may be less money distributed to the program, as well as more difficult in attaining private funding if we are not serving our diverse populations. In addition, dissatisfied youth and families may encourage others to leave or not join the program. Understanding experiences with the program can help ensure the future of the 4-H program.
This proposal aims to address multiple components of youth retention: How do the experiences during the first year in 4-H affect retention? How does that compare in other programs? Does the 4-H experience vary by different backgrounds with the program, such as those that are brand new (first generation) versus those with a family history in 4-H (e.g., fifth generation)? What are the components of the 4-H program that draws or retains youth? What are the factors that influence whether a youth member stays in the 4-H club program? In what ways does culture—both the cultural background of participants and the culture of our 4-H organization—impact youth recruitment and retention? How do youth development principles align with an individual’s culture?
Answers to these questions will deepen our understanding of the complexities at work in retaining 4-H youth and inform how best to address the issues. The project will then explore strategies at the local, state and national levels, to address retention. The project fits the Extension model of research informing practice to better the lives of youth and families by having more youth and families engaged in 4-H, and the communities in which they live, through the positive impacts youth experience in 4-H over multiple years.
The technical feasibility
The various roles of the research team supports the feasibility of this work. This project will involve 4-H and extension staff from six states at the county and state levels. At the regional/county-level there are 4-H Youth Development Advisors, Agents or Educators involved in this project. The role of these 4-H staff is to provide leadership over 4-H programming at the county level and work with other extension staff and faculty to plan and deliver research-based programming. Further, they conduct applied research to help solve local problems and benefit clientele. These staff members provide a direct connection to the population of interest in this study. They also bring a wealth of knowledge of 4-H programming that can help inform research questions, study design, and interpretation of results. We have access to youth and families via email (through enrollment databases). At the state level, this project involves state leaders, specialists in Volunteerism and Youth Development, and an evaluation coordinator who bring skills in research design, methodology, and data analysis which serves to strengthen the team.
The advantages of a multistate effort
Retention phenomenon is not unique to any one state and therefore this multistate project will substantially contribute to the identification of underlying factors that help explain current youth dropout (or retention). Other investigations of youth retention have been restricted to data within states or counties with application to programming and youth often limited to those geographic boundaries (e.g., Defore et al. 2011, Harder et al., 2005; Pipkin, 2016; Russell & Heck, 2008). To date, there are no multistate publications. A multistate 4-H youth retention study would increase the heterogeneity of the youth population and thus the generalizability of the findings would be greater than single-state studies. A multistate approach would provide an opportunity to identify factors that cut across contexts and populations that National could address, and provides the power and diversity needed to gain a nuanced picture of what matters and for whom. A team of Cooperative Extension staff from California, Idaho, Louisiana, New Jersey, Washington, and Wyoming have formed a research team to begin examining retention in these states.
Impacts of this work
Past research has shown the powerful impact 4-H can make on youth on a broad range of youth development outcomes. Through retention efforts (or, by reducing dropout rates), more youth are able to experience the powerful impacts found to influence positive development of youth. The most prominent research on 4-Her’s was a longitudinal, 8-year study which included more than 7,000 youth from 42 states in the U.S. This study found that in comparison to non-4-H youth, those affiliated with 4-H were more likely to contribute to their communities; be civically active; participate in science, engineering, and computer technology programs; make healthier choices; and report higher academic competence (Lerner & Lerner, 2013).
In addition to this longitudinal study, there have been many other studies showing the powerful influence of 4-H on a variety of youth development. For example, youth in 4-H programming develop critical life and leadership skills such as: problem-solving, goal setting, communication, considering the perspective of others, public speaking, viewing themselves as a community resource, responsibility, and developing a sense of belonging and purpose (Brennan, Barnett, & Lesmeister 2007; Calvert, de Montmollin, & Winnett, 2015; Dodd, Follmer-Reece, Kostina-Ritchey, & Reyna, 2015; McElprang & Nash, 2014). Youth in 4-H also develop critical skills to be an informed and active citizen such as the development of knowledge about local government and the ability to discuss local issues with others (Calvert et al., 2015). Past research also shows the lasting influence of 4-H by studying 4-H alumni. 4-H alumni report that through 4-H, they developed skills that have followed them into adulthood such as: public speaking, self-discipline, community service, and self-esteem (Fox, Schroeder, & Lodl, 2003; Maas, Wilken, Jordan, Culen, & Place, 2006). In addition, former 4-Hers reported that they volunteer, hold leadership positions in community organizations, and continue to be a part of 4-H as an adult volunteer (Merten et al., 2014. They have also been found to be more skilled at developing nurturing relationships and working in teams which are skills needed to transition and persist in college (Ratkos & Knollenberg, 2015). Finally, Haas et al. (2015) found that participants who had been involved with 4-H for a longer period of time were significantly better able to make decisions, communicate and think critically.
Taken together, these studies show that engaging youth in 4-H YDP has the potential to shape their lives in positive manners. In turn, these youth will make contributions to their community by remaining engaged, volunteering, and maintaining employment. Long-term engagement in 4-H benefits not only the youth, but their communities as well. Finding ways to retain youth in the program for more than a year or two can make profound impacts on society as a result of the skills developed and opportunities provided to youth in 4-H.