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Published: May 31, 2011

Extension programs

Originally, any educational program that extends the reach of an educative institution beyond the formal curriculum and the walls of a school, college or educative agency. Usually associated with agricultural education, extension programs first appeared in the United States in the early 1800s, when huge stretches of land across the eastern United States turned barren because of overplanting and overgrazing. A group of successful agricultural entrepreneurs organized the BERKSHIRE AGRICULTURAL SOCIETY to teach farmers crop rotation, proper fertilization techniques and other methods to help them preserve and restore the soil. The passage of the Morrill Act of 1862 created LAND-GRANT COLLEGES, or public colleges, to offer “practical education,” which included courses in agricultural methods. As the colleges grew, most offered a variation of extension programs whereby interested farmers could obtain the specific knowledge they needed without formal enrollment in classes or any loss of time from the work in the fields. Many teachers actually traveled into the farm lands to provide such instruction and information to farmers and their neighbors.
Although establishment of the Department of Agriculture provided still more informal education, it was not until 1914, with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act and the creation of the department’s COOPERATIVE EXTENSION SERVICE, that these programs were organized into formal extension programs. Working out of the land-grant colleges and universities, Department of Agriculture experts began offering a wide variety of formal and informal extension programs, ranging from informal advice to formal college classes for credit. Extension programs provide plant and soil analysis, a wide range of information, studies, pamphlets, books and training in agriculture, animal care and breeding, construction, home economics and any other subject pertinent to farm management. In nonrural areas, extension programs at private as well as public colleges and universities have expanded to include a wide range of nonagricultural instruction for adults at far lower costs than conventional higher education—and with none of the admissions requirements or time constraints. Of the nearly 100 million Americans participating in some form of adult education, about 10% are enrolled in postsecondary extension courses— often at the nation’s most prestigious, academically selective institutions. HARVARD University Extension School, for example, awards well over 100 bachelor’s degrees a year, while University of Maryland’s extension school, University College, counts well over 4,000 students. Extension schools usually hold classes on weekday evenings and weekends. Harvard Extension School charges about $550 per lecture course, compared with about $4,000 for the same course for conventional undergraduates attending Harvard College. Students must earn at least 52 of the 128 credits to qualify for a degree at Harvard Extension School.
More than 86% of students enrolled in extension programs are 25 years old or more, two-thirds are 30 or older, almost 55% are 35 or older and 44% are 40 or older. The vast majority (83%) have some college, 17.4% have an associate degree, 11.2% have a bachelor’s degree and 21% have attended graduate school without obtaining their graduate degrees. A surprisingly high number have graduate degrees: 12.5% have master’s degrees, 8% have doctorates and 11% have professional degrees. (See also ADULT EDUCATION.)