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Your little Susie may graduate from high school intent on pursuing a college degree, but odds are that once on campus she'll be sidetracked by pressure to find Mr. Right.

A culture of romance prevalent on college campuses causes women to trade academic pursuits for pursuit of a man - despite the woman's proven scholastic talents and her own intentions, according to University of Colorado researcher Margaret Eisenhart.In the culture of romance, a woman's status is based on the men she attracts - not on academic success, extracurricular activities or her friends. Men, on the other hand, aren't judged so heavily on their romantic relationships.

Eisenhart presented findings of her study of college women at the annual conference of The Center for Studies of the Family at Brigham Young University last week. The study is detailed in the book "Educated in Romance: Women, Achievement and College Culture."

Eisenhart teamed with researcher Dorothy Holland in 1979 to study why so few women go into math and science careers. They tracked 23 women, each of whom planned to earn non-traditional degrees, through college and into their careers. The researchers later surveyed 362 women to see if their findings applied to women generally.

"We hoped our study would reveal some previously hidden dynamic in the experiences of college women, some dynamic that could help us to understand why, despite the removal of legal barriers and the establishment of affirmative-action programs, talented young women were not pursuing high-paying, high-status careers in fields such as science, mathematics, computer science and engineering," Eisenhart said.

Women tend to be high achievers in high school and college, but few seek high-status majors and occupations in college, particularly in fields that require a math or science background, Eisenhart said.

Eisenhart and Holland thought a dynamic might be at work on campuses that funnels women into low-paying, low-status careers.

"It seemed apparent that something was happening to women in the transition from schooling to working," Eisenhart said.

That dynamic, they believe, is a peer-supported culture of romance that compels women to sacrifice career plans in order to prove themselves in love relationships. The culture includes a "sexual auction block," where women are ranked and evaluated by peers in terms of their attractiveness to men. The ability to snare an attractive man is paramount to academic and career success.

The women in Eisenhart's study illustrated the effects of the culture of romance.

"When the women in our sample began their college careers, they had at least a B-plus high school average, above-average SAT scores, and approximately half said they would major in a math- or science-related field," Eisenhart said. All expected to pursue careers in their majors.

Eighteen of the 23 women ended college with weak career identities and strong romantic identities. Only three of the 18 settled in career-track jobs; all but two married within a year of graduating.

"Less than one-third of these bright and privileged women met their own aspirations for the future," Eisenhart said. "By the time they left college, two-thirds were intensely involved in romantic relationships, held weak identities of themselves as career women and were poorly prepared to support themselves independently, either financially or emotionally."

Other studies have shown 75 percent of women leave college and do not pursue a career of their own; most of these women end up working outside the home in low-paying jobs, Eisenhart said.

Although the 18 women entered college intent on non-traditional careers, they tended to view college as a "way station" before getting on with life or as an opportunity to prove themselves as students. Those views made the women particularly vulnerable to pressure exerted by the culture of romance.

The 18 women later acknowledged they'd lost sight of their original college goals but could not explain what happened.

Just be friends

Researcher Margaret Eisenhart says the culture of romance could be diffused if girls and boys learned at an early age they can be friends, colleagues and partners as well as lovers.