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Make your youth program a pathway to higher education

By Joanna Tzenis

Group of 4-H youth running on the mall of the University of Minnesota campus
Youth who are in 4-H are more likely to pursue higher education than those who are not.  But what is it about the program that makes that so?

4-H takes a positive youth development (PYD) approach to placing youth on pathways to higher education. Through hands-on learning, 4-H'ers discover their passions and begin to explore them. Through leadership development, they become active agents in reaching their educational goals and acting on their passions in a way that advances society.

Each 4-H activity includes four essential elements that all young people need to achieve their aspirations for higher education.

Essential elements for achieving aspirations in higher education

1. Youth need opportunities to connect their interests and educational aspirations to concrete experiences.

What this could look like in a 4-H experience:
  • Exploring a 4-H project area and sharing their learning with an adult.
  • Visiting a college campus to do a chemistry lab with a current student, creating sculptures with art students or siting in a classroom and sharing their views on a social topic.
  • Meeting industry professionals and exploring the work environment.

2. Youth need to feel a sense of belonging in a higher education setting.

What this could look like in a 4-H experience:
  • Enjoying college “hangout” spots.
  • Staying overnight in the dormitories.
  • Being mentored by college students.

3. Youth need to engage in future planning activities that prompt them to address underlying social barriers and rely on supports.

What this could look like in a 4-H experience:
  • Developing an educational portfolio using a 4-H curriculum that includes items such as a vision board, reflecting on a higher ed obstacle course, SMART goals and maps to their future.
  • Meeting with college admissions staff to learn about scholarships, taking entrance exams such as the ACT and completing certain courses they should take in high school.

4. Youth need to imagine their futures with others so they can build a system of support and enrich their visions for their futures.

What this could look like in a 4-H experience:
  • Youth presenting their educational plans in a showcase event open to the community.
  • Youth sitting down with their family members and sharing their educational portfolios.
  • Youth developing a relationship with a 4-H volunteer who helps them to become active agents in achieving their higher ed aspirations.
By weaving these elements into program design, youth programs can become a place that put youth on a pathway towards thriving in and through higher education.

How have you included these essential elements in your youth programs?

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor

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  1. So excited about this work, Joanna, and the impact I have observed at several Campus Immersion activities. Your research, guidebook and program model advance our work on making higher ed pathways for 4-H youth. I have several lasting conversations with youth locked into my memory about how this opportunity shaped and changed their thinking about future possibilities. I am glad to see this growing across the state!

  2. I think another way is to get youth talking about their uncertainties. I think some of the activities in the curriculum you provide here can help facilitate that, but even just having regular, informal conversations with them about what they're thinking can keep it in the forefront of their minds, as well as help you understand what their barriers are, either in thought, or in reality.


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