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Fall 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA2

Why Adults Participate

A 1987 study of Ohio Cooperative Extension Service surveyed Extension
clientele who had been involved in a variety of Extension programs. Five
factors emerged from the principal-component factor analysis of
responses to items related to participation. They were: low anticipated
difficulties with arrangements, high commitments to the Extension
organization, anticipated positive social involvement, anticipated high
quality of the information, and possession of high internal motivation to

Emmalou Van Tilburg Norland

Associate Professor
Department of Agricultural Education
Ohio State University-Columbus

Why do some adults participate in continuing education programs and

other don't? What are the barriers to participation? What encourages
people to attend? Why do some adults drop out and others complete a
program? Are the reasons for participation and persistence different for
different types of people? What can adult educators do to encourage
participation and persistence in their educational programs? These
questions have perplexed adult educators for many years.
Many studies on adult participation and persistence in educational
programs have tried to answer these questions. A number of authors have
identified factors that act as barriers or encouragers to adult participation.
Johnstone and Rivera used terms such as situational barriers (time,
money, child care, transportation, weather), institutional barriers (factors
pertaining to the educational service provider), sociodemographic barriers
(age, sex, race, income, educational level, and geographical location), and
dispositional factors (self-esteem, group participation) in describing adult
Burgess identified several characteristics of adults who choose to
participate in the learning experience: (1) they want to know; (2) they've
established personal, social, or religious goals; (3) they're engaged in
some activity; (4) they need to meet a formal, work-related requirement;
and (5) they simply want to escape.2 Boshier linked the desire to improve

one's ability to serve the community, the need to make new friends,
intellectual recreation, professional advancement (either job-related or
inner-directed), an abhorrence of television, the joy of learning, an
introduction or supplementation of understanding, and escape to adult
Other authors have identified specific factors related to participation such
as involvement with a formal organization that encourages adult
participation,4 broad and diverse leisure activities,5 and high levels of
income.6 Situational barriers to participation, such as child care, shift or
overtime work, lack of transportation, poor health, and lack of time or
money are more a problem for low socioeconomic adults and the elderly
than the average middle-class adult. Institutional barriers (inconvenient
class schedules, full-time fees for part-time study, restrictive locations)
often exclude or discourage certain groups of learners such as the poor,
the uneducated, and the foreign born. In addition, adults living in certain
geographical areas, especially those in small towns and rural areas, are
less likely to participate in educational activities.7
Application to Extension Education
A 1987 study of Ohio Cooperative Extension Service clientele provided
useful information for Extension educators who work with a variety of
adult learners and ponder the participation/persistence phenomenon.8
The study surveyed Extension clientele who had been involved in a variety
of Extension programs (estimated target population n= 20,000; study
cluster sample n = 599; final data sample n = 276). The relational design
of the study provided results that addressed the following questions:
1. What are the encouragers and barriers to participation and
persistence in Extension educational programs?
2. Are those encouragers and barriers different for the decision to
participate and the decision to persist?
3. What are the anticipated outcomes of participation and persistence?
4. Can perceived barriers and encouragers to participation and
persistence and outcomes be used to predict satisfaction with
participation (suggested to be a best predictor of dropout)?
Data were collected using a mail questionnaire. Follow-ups with
nonrespondents indicated respondent data were representative of the
sample. The cluster sample was drawn to allow generalization of results to
the population. Even though the findings and conclusions can be said to
be true for Ohio, other Extension educators may want to note the
implications this study presents.

Five factors emerged from the principal-component factor analysis of
responses to items related to participation. They were: low anticipated
difficulties with arrangements, high commitment to the Extension
organization, anticipated positive social involvement, anticipated high
quality of the information, and possession of high internal motivation to
learn. With the exception of commitment to Extension, the same factors
appeared to motivate persistence. Commitment to Extension was
replaced with commitment to the teacher in the persistence question.
Participation outcomes fell into three broad categories: negative learning
experiences, self-improvement outcomes, and positive social experiences.
Using multiple regression relating satisfaction to participation, the set of
best predictors included receiving self -improvement outcomes,
anticipating few arrangement problems, experiencing few negative
learning outcomes, and having high commitment to the teacher
throughout participation.
The data from this study indicated that Ohio Extension clientele
participate and persist for the same reasons: they can arrange to
participate, they're internally motivated, they believe Extension provides
quality information, and they enjoy social involvement.
The initial commitment to Extension as an encourager to participate
transferred to the teacher as an encourager to persist (return). The
reputation of Ohio Extension outweighed the quality of the teacher
initially, but once individuals gained experience with the teacher,
commitment to the teacher became most important.
Clientele satisfaction with participation was linked to many selfimprovement outcomes, liking and respect for the teacher, and being able
to take care of arrangements, such as parking, child care, fees for
participation, while receiving few negative learning experiences.
This study of adult participation has implications for planning, marketing,
and delivering Extension programs.
People assess whether they'll participate initially using what they know
about Extension in general as well as the specific learning opportunity.
Marketing strategies should build on Extension's reputation for quality
information. The image of Extension, recently much maligned, appeared
in Ohio to be a big drawing card for current clientele assessing potential
future participation-as though they trust an old friend. This theme
emerged in data from urban as well as rural locations, men as well as
women, and agriculturally related subjects, as well as home economics, 4-

H, and community development. Reaching out to new clientele or working

in areas where Extension is less well- known may require marketing to
establish this reputation.
The study also suggests that Extension programs should be designed to
incorporate social involvement in educational experiences. Learning
experiences should also be structured to stimulate self-improvement
beyond learning new information and skills related to the specific topic.
When making arrangements for educational programs, convenience
should be considered by and clearly marketed to potential clientele.
People make choices about participation based on the information they're
given; anticipated convenience is as important as actual convenience.
1. J. Johnstone and R. Rivera, Volunteers for Learning: A Study of the
Educational Pursuits of American Adults (Chicago: Aldine, 1965).
2. P. Burgess, "Reasons for Adult Participation in Group Educational
Activities," Adult Education, XXII (No. 1, 1971), 3- 29.
3 R. Boshier, "Motivational Orientation of Adult Education Participants: A
Factor Analytic Exploration of Houle's Typology," Adult Education, XXI (No.
2, 1971), 3-26 and C. O. Houle, The Inquiring Mind (Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press, 1961).
4. G. G. Darkenwald and S. B. Merriam, Adult Education: Foundations of
Practice (New York: Harper & Row 1982).
5. J. London, R. Wenkert, and W. C. Haggerstrom, Adult Education and
Social Class, Cooperative Research Project 1017 (Berkeley, California:
Research Center, University of California, 1963).
6. Johnstone and Rivera, Volunteers for Learning.
7. Ibid.
8. Emmalou Van Tilburg, "A Comparison of Advantaged and
Disadvantaged Populations of Adult Learners Using the ExpectancyValence Paradigm of Motivation and Adult Learner Participation, Final
Report" (Staff study, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio
Agricultural Research and Development Center, 1988).