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Where the women are: college

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For several decades, American women raced to catch up with their male counterparts in the higher education arena. Now, they have not only caught up, but they are the majority on most of the country's college campuses, and the momentum appears set to further tilt the balance in their favor.

Many see this as the natural outcome of the women's rights movement and cheer the statistics. But voices are being raised in some quarters nationally that it is a troublesome trend that has implications for the job market and for the future of American families.

While Utah is a little behind the national gender swing, six of the state's nine universities and colleges now enroll as many or more women than men. However, since the male-dominated institutions include the largest in the system, the total in 2000 showed men still with a small majority overall, at 51 percent.

Still enrolling a majority of males are the University of Utah and Utah Valley State College (both 54 percent) and Salt Lake Community College (52 percent). Dixie State College had a 50/50 split in 2000. Each of the other schools enrolled more women: Utah State University and Weber State University, 52 percent female, and Southern Utah University, 56 percent (the current national average). The figures come from the 2001-2002 Data Book compiled by the Commission for Higher Education.

More of the associate degrees earned in Utah during the 2000 academic school year (57 percent) went to women. At the bachelor's degree level, there was an even split. But males here continued to earn more postgraduate degrees — 51 percent of master's degrees and 66 percent of the doctoral degrees. The gap is closing at those levels as well, coming closer to the national figures that show a majority of these higher degrees being conferred on women. Utah is the only state now in which more master's degrees go to men. In five states, according to 1998 figures, more women earned doctoral degrees than did men.

"The trend is in the right direction in completion of degrees (by women)," said Cecelia Foxley, Utah commissioner for higher education. "It's a hopeful sign. Although women got just a third of the doctoral degrees, less than a decade ago, it was only a fourth. That's a good increase."

Nationally, the balance is tilting even further on the side of female graduates. According to statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics and repeated in a publication called Postsecondary Education Opportunity, 51 percent of the bachelor's degrees granted across the country went to men in 1980; in 1990, the percentage had slipped to 46.8 percent for males and the 1998 figure was down to 43.9 percent.

The author, Thomas Mortenson, a policy and research analyst based in Oscaloosa, Iowa, delves into higher education issues. He agrees that Utah's "Mormon religion and resulting culture influence higher education participation for men and women in ways that are quite different from the rest of the country."

Mortenson sees the growing gender gap as a serious problem that may contribute to social challenges regarding "what to do with these disengaged males." He applauds the progress made by women, but is concerned that the dwindling flow of males to higher education represents fundamental differences in how the sexes are now viewed. He details his concerns in an article titled "Where the Guys are Not," available on his Web site, ( www.postsecondary.org). He equates the burgeoning male population in prisons with failure to educate more young men coming out of high school, for instance.

"Utah is a little different from the rest of the nation," Foxley observed. "Utah residents marry earlier and when they marry, they have obligations in addition to education. It is typical for (a Utah) wife to step down her education and get a job to support her husband through school. You don't find the same thing in other states. Elsewhere, they wait to marry and have families. The sad part is when we see young women come back as divorced single mothers wanting to complete their education. Then they often need child-care assistance," a phenomenon that wasn't a concern to college administrators in the past.

Changing social attitudes are driving some of the new gender patterns in higher education, she said. More women are looking at potential employment in fields that once were considered the male realm. Men, however, are not choosing careers in traditional women's fields such as education and nursing.

The fields of study in which the most dramatic gender shifts have occurred, according to Mortenson, are business, agriculture, architecture, psychology, biology/life sciences, physical sciences and communications.

Paul Brinkman, associate vice president for budget and planning at the University of Utah, can't lay a finger on any particular factor that keeps the U. a male-dominated school — so far. The state's flagship institution has a mix of programs that traditionally draw one gender more than the other, he said. Engineering, science and math courses continue to appeal mostly men, but education and nursing classes are primarily filled by women.

Two traditional male bastions — medicine and law — are moving toward equal numbers of men and women at the U., but engineering still has a significant predominance of men.

"Women are not represented well," said Keith Wilder, director of outreach and diversity in the school. Fall enrollment in 2000 showed 260 women in the U.'s seven engineering programs — only 12.5 percent of the 2,078 total student count.

When they do opt for engineering, women "perform on a par with males." They tend to focus on computer, chemical, fuels and civil engineering, Wilder said. "They want a job where they can really make a difference for human beings."

In 1992, women actually made up the majority of students in the U. law school, but they tend to remain just below the break-even point, comprising 40 to 45 percent of the class most years. The 2001 graduating class had 69 men and 47 women — 41 percent females. Nationally, more women now graduate from law schools than men.

The proportion of women in the U. School of Medicine is creeping upward but does not match the U.S. average, said Dr. Victoria Judd, associate dean for admissions. Currently, 37 percent at the U. are female, while women are the majority now in more than 30 of the country's medical schools.

In the past couple of years, Judd noted, women in the U. program have been at the top of their class. As in engineering, women tend to select certain areas within the discipline. Obstetrics/gynecology and pediatrics attract many female doctors and the numbers in internal medicine and emergency treatment are increasing, she said. Surgical sub-specialties remain primarily the domain of male doctors.

The fact that the U. has more postgraduate programs Utah's other public colleges and universities may account for some of the male predominance at that institution, Brinkman said, since the majority of master's and doctoral degrees are earned by men.

Mark Barton, assistant director for student services at Southern Utah University, can't offer an explanation for the fact that more women than men enroll at the school in Cedar City, except that the smaller campus may appeal to women who want "a more personal environment. They may find us more caring and there is a safety factor inherent in the small-town setting."

SUU's program offerings are "as diverse as any," he said, with no emphasis on fields of study that might be expected to bring more women to the campus.

One factor that could influence falling male involvement in colleges and universities in Utah may be the availability of more applied technology training that provides faster entry into jobs that pay relatively well but don't require a college degree, said Foxley. The Utah College of Applied Technology, created just last month by the Legislature, will offer associate degrees in applied technology. That could help some of these students go on to additional education if they choose, she said.

In his published study of the gender shifts, Mortenson identifies several trends that may be pushing the female dominance in higher education. The U.S. labor market is moving from goods-producing to service-providing. And urbanization calls for more social and communications skills — areas in which women tend to find more jobs.

Men are failing to adapt to the new social conditions, Mortenson believes. The upshot over time is that many educated women will not be able to find equally educated men as partners. They also will share the problems of fathers, brothers, husbands and sons who become more displaced in the social order, he believes.

"It is probably no coincidence that the prison population of the United States began its explosive growth about 1975 (the year the balance of higher education enrollment began its tilt toward female dominance). We take this as one indication of our country's inability to effectively address the preparation of young men for responsible, productive, contributing social roles."

His plea is for more study of the causes of the imbalance and ways to encourage more men to complete college studies.

E-MAIL: tvanleer@desnews.com