Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Study: Utah ranks last in women attending college

Excerpts of Utah's higher-education gender gap grows, by Brian Maffly, Salt Lake Tribune
UVU study • Percentage of women attending postsecondary institutions trails nation.

Utah women marry younger, have children sooner and have more of them than their peers in all other states. This demographic quirk is often cited as the reason women don't attend college at the same rate as men, a growing cause of concern among higher-education leaders.

Nationally, women make up the majority of college students, currently 57 percent compared with 49 percent in Utah.

According to Utah Valley University scholar Susan Madsen, women who put off completing college until after their children are grown rarely get around to earning a degree.

"For many of the women who come back, something critical happened. They'll be pushed back into it. They lose their husbands or divorce their husbands" said Madsen, an associate professor of management. "Ninety percent of [Utah's] young women believe that they will, at sometime in their life, get a college degree. The problem is the probability of that gets low as time goes by."

Madsen has been exploring women's low college participation and what can be done to reverse the trend.She will present her findings from the Utah Women and Education Project, based on in-depth surveys of 245 women, age 18 to 32.

When it comes to women and college participation, Utah is an outlier. Nationally, women are projected to account for 59 percent of undergraduate and 61 percent of graduate enrollments by 2019, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2008, women earned 57 percent of bachelor's degrees, 62 percent of associate's degrees and 51 percent of doctorate degrees, marking huge gains in education attainment for women — advances not shared by women in the Beehive State.

While the freshman classes at the University of Utah and BYU are evenly split between the genders most years, men earn about 55 percent of the bachelor's degrees — and the gap is widening. According to U. data, the state's flagship university awarded 47.5 percent of its 2000 degrees to women. That share slipped to 45.2 percent this year.

The disparity is relatively recent. In the early 1990s, women made up the majority of enrollments at Utah's public campuses, but in 1993, male participation began outpacing that of females. Women now account for 49 percent, Madsen said.

She suspects many young women don't fully appreciate the economic and social value of a college degree or are unaware of the financial aid and advising services to help them through.

Conventional wisdom holds that Utah's gender gap is connected to the influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which celebrates marriage and family. But culture explains only part of the puzzle, especially since church leaders also extoll the virtues of education, Madsen said.

"Lots of young women who dropped out said they wanted to be in college and they did and it was great, but they dropped out after the first semester," she said. "That was their goal — to go to college, not to graduate. They're thinking they're successful if they just go."