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Opinion: What an education gap spells out for women in Utah

Nationally, women and men are evenly matched in educational attainment with women slightly higher — but Utah tells a different story.

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Gaelen Kinkead, right, sits next to her friend and fellow sophomore Ashlay Findley on the University of Utah campus.

Sophomore Gaelen Kinkead, right, sits next to her friend and fellow sophomore Ashlay Findley on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Utah’s gender gap shows itself in multiple ways, including wages, leadership roles, political representation and in higher education. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women are earning more bachelor’s degrees than men across the country, 20.6% to 19.8%. Our overall rates are higher in Utah, and nearly even between men and women, with 23.0% of Utah women earning a bachelor’s degree and 22.6% of Utah men. 

Nationally, 12.4% of men are earning graduate degrees, while 13% of women earn graduate degrees. Utah inverts the national trend of women earning more graduate degrees than men, with only 9.3% of Utah women and 14.1% of Utah men earning graduate degrees.

A research team at Utah State University, led by Dr. Sojung Lim, an associate professor of sociology, in partnership with the USU Utah Woman & Leadership Project, recently released the first of two reports on their research findings. This report focuses on the quantitative portion of the study. Slightly more than 900 women currently pursuing degrees were included as participants.

For women pursuing an undergraduate degree, 30% said they wanted to learn skills for a desired job. Just over a quarter said they were pursuing a degree because they felt earning a degree was important in itself. More than half of the women pursuing undergraduate degrees planned to find jobs related to their fields of study and more than 20% wanted to find jobs that would allow them to combine work and family responsibilities. Almost half of them wanted to go to graduate school after completion of their undergraduate degrees. 

The study notes that this finding suggests “that challenges and circumstances, not ambition and desire, are influencing the gap.” Half of the women had considered leaving college before finishing their degree, mostly for financial reasons (58.3%). Not surprisingly, women pursuing undergraduate degrees tend to be younger than women pursuing graduate degrees. More than a quarter of undergraduate students are married, about 13% have children and more than two-thirds are also holding down jobs.

Brittney Cummins, Gov. Spencer Cox’s education adviser, told me “The Utah Women and Leadership Project once again provides insight into our state and where family centric policy changes can benefit us all. Currently, we are working to create better ways to communicate to learners of all ages the benefits of higher education programs and how progressions translate in the workforce. It is also clear from the report that as our community develops greater access for Utahans to flexible and affordable higher education programs, work environments and child care options, more women will feel empowered to further engage in education and occupation advancement.”

A 2018 report created for the Women in the Economy Commission noted different enrollment patterns: Utah women make up close to 50% of college enrollees in the 18-24 age group, 40% or less of enrollees in the 25-34 age group and then more than half in the 35-44 year-old group. Additionally, a greater percentage of Utah women than Utah men fall into the “less than one year of college,” “more than one year of college but no degree,” and “associate degree.” These categories also correspond with demographic patterns in Utah — marriage and childbearing in one’s 20s and 30s, then a return to school once children are in school themselves. Utah, by the way, is now seventh in the nation for students with “some college, no degree,” some 370,000+ statewide.

“Utah women earn lower-level degrees, pursue lower-paying and stereotypically female fields of study, and have poorer economic outcomes compared to U.S. women,” Jeppsen wrote in her research brief.

It matters. 

In Utah, “at every educational level, men earn more than women who have achieved a higher level of education: men with a high school diploma earn more than women with an associate’s degree, men with a bachelor’s earn more than women with a graduate degree, and men’s prospective postgraduate salaries are higher than women’s.” Education level and income are both tied to rates of domestic abuse in Utah — the higher the education level and/or the higher the income, the lower the reported rates of domestic abuse. 

Nontraditional students in Utah make up close to 40% of Utah students in higher education. Utah’s Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson was one of those students. She left school after her freshman year to put her husband through school. She stayed home to raise their five children, and then returned to school a few years ago. In December 2021, 28 years after she left school, she donned a cap and gown and graduated with her bachelor’s degree. She has encouraging words for others who may be in her situation: “I hope other Utahns can see that it’s never too late to fulfill your ambitions. In fact, today is a great day to start.”

The Utah Women and Leadership Project’s policy brief on the educational achievement gap concludes with the following recommendations: Reduce financial burdens of women pursuing higher education; implement measures to alleviate some of the challenges of balancing family and education, includes child care support; and third, raise awareness of resources, potential benefits and the return on investment that comes with college degrees, including graduate degrees. Closing the educational achievement gap will help move the needle in other areas of gender inequality in our state.

Holly Richardson returned to school after 30 years of raising her family, earning a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and in August of this year, a doctorate in political science. She is the editor of Utah Policy.