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Utah women falling behind

On September 20, 2010

Nationally, more women than men - 57 percent to men's 43 - enroll in college. In Utah, 49 percent of students are women. The number of Utah women who graduate from college (49 percent) is lower than the national average of 59 percent. Women who do attend and graduate college in Utah tend to receive degrees in lower-paying occupations like education and social work. This is according to an ongoing two-year study, the Utah Women and Education Project .

The project, commissioned by the Utah System of Higher Education, is directed by Utah Valley University professor Susan Madsen. The study began in May 2009 and will be finished in May 2011, and has disseminated some of its findings so far, including briefs detailing statistics.

Why is it a concern that Utah women are falling behind?

"I believe that college is a critical time in life for women to develop leadership because they learn the skills and gain the confidence to do so there. College education helps women be more influential," Madsen said.

According to a UWEP Research and Policy brief issued in January, women who are college-educated:

- Live longer and have a healthier well-being due to factors like making better choices and receiving health insurance from better jobs.

- Participate more in civic and community involvement, including voting. The College Board reported in 2006 that college graduates volunteer at a rate of 43 percent compared with 19 percent of high school graduates.

- Develop a better sense of independence and feeling of control in their lives, which influences their leadership skills.

- Have increased awareness, dialogue, and involvement in racial understanding, openness to diversity and gender-role attitudes, world affairs and social issues and certain aspects of the political process.

- Find occupations and lifestyles that offer greater intellectual stimulation than those with only high school diplomas.

- Have an increased income of over 60 percent for a four-year degree.

The complete research, which Madsen said she hopes will indicate why women in Utah are falling behind, will be available in November.

"The hypothesis was that women in Utah don't understand the broader value of a higher education, that it is not just linked with getting a job," Madsen said. "But many women in Utah do not plan to work after high school, so they choose not to go to college. We found this is the case."

The research and policy brief stated, "When Utahns were asked why they believed college was important, 80 percent related its importance solely to economic outcomes while only 17 percent stated its importance in terms of other kinds of development like benefiting society, making one well-rounded, and helping people to understand the world."

Senior American studies major Brian Cook said in Utah things are a little different.

"We can speculate with the Utah culture some people tend to get married at a younger age," he said. "I have three sisters who all got married before they were 20 years old, although 2 did graduate from college."

Another reason may be that, according to Madsen, Utahns believe men should be more educated than women. While 49 percent of Utahns sampled believed the minimum level of education a male should receive is a four-year degree or higher, only 39 percent believe that females need this same level of education.

"The gender roles seem a lot more set in stone here. Women in other parts of the country are freer in a lot of aspects than in Utah. There are very specific roles of what is and is not expected for men and women. A lot of men are expected to provide financially," said Sean Kowallis, a Utah native and senior majoring in professional and technical English.

Also, the brief said that only 35 percent of women believe females should get a bachelor's degree or higher, while 44 percent believe men should attain a higher level of education.

Another brief issued in May stated that because many young men leave for full-time missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the percentage of females enrolled is actually above the national average among 18-21-year-olds. However, the percentage of females enrolled decreases dramatically in the 22-24 age category. Female graduation rates in Utah are below the national average, suggesting that women leave school without earning a diploma during these years.

Janessa Crasts, freshman elementary education major, said, "In Utah there is more of an emphasis on getting married, especially younger. I am wondering if that has something to do with girls dropping out of college and starting a family and getting into their marriage and settling down."

Crasts said that she is attending college because it had always been a drive for her.

"My mom never graduated from college," Crasts said, "and she has always pushed me to finish and have a degree because it is something you have to do now to be competitor in the work force."

Ashlee Henderson is a liberal arts major with a business emphasis. Henderson, a freshman, said: "Girls do tend to get married younger around here so maybe they think, ‘I'm married off so I am good to go.' and they just drop out. But I am here because I don't know what is going to happen in my future and I don't know if I am going to need a job, so I want something I can rely on."

A state-wide conference will present findings from the UWEP research studies Nov. 12 at Utah Valley University, and will provide an opportunity for dialogue on possible actions.12

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