Utah women pursuing higher education face challenges

By Julene Reese

Recent data from the US Census Bureau shows that slightly more Utah women earn a bachelor’s degree than Utah men (23.4% versus 22.6%). However, Utah has the largest educational attainment gap among college graduates in the United States. Nationally, 13% of women and 12.4% of men have a graduate degree, but in Utah only 9.3% of women have a graduate degree, compared to 14.1 . % of males.

To better understand this disparity, a research team from Utah State University, led by Sojung Lim, associate professor of sociology, in partnership with the USU Utah Woman & Leadership Project collected quantitative and qualitative data examining the resources and the challenges of women pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees. This report is the first of two and summarizes the results of the quantitative data.

“The purpose of this study was to examine the challenges women in Utah face when pursuing higher education,” said Susan Madsen, founding director of UWLP. “Understanding this will help us learn how to better support women in achieving higher education, which in turn will help with other areas of inequality, including the gender pay gap.”

The study results come from a survey of Utah women aged 18 or older enrolled in colleges/universities pursuing undergraduate or graduate studies. Participants were recruited by the Registrar’s and Graduate Offices of Utah universities and through social media platforms and professional networks. In June 2022, 907 women responded to the survey.

The demographics of the participants showed characteristics unique to Utah that may affect women’s educational attainment. For example, more than one in four undergraduate students and almost half of graduate students were married, and one in five women had children. More than one in five women worked full time and almost half part time. Additionally, female students in graduate programs were more racially and religiously diverse than female students in undergraduate programs.

When asked why they went to college, about 30% said they wanted to learn the skills needed for the job they wanted. One in four respondents said they felt an undergraduate degree was necessary regardless of their career or life goals, and about 17% chose college to increase their earning potential.

To better understand the educational aspirations and goals of women in Utah, they were asked if they planned to go to college. Almost half said they were considering it.

“This result is somewhat surprising, given that Utah is the state with the largest gender gap in higher education of any state,” Lim said. “This suggests that challenges and circumstances, not ambition and desire, influence the gap.”

The study showed that women in graduate programs were older and more diverse in terms of race/ethnicity and religious affiliation than those in undergraduate programs. In addition, women enrolled in higher education programs were more likely to be married or cohabiting and to have at least one child. Graduate students worked at higher rates and were more likely to hold regular full-time jobs than undergraduate students. Additionally, the percentage of women who rated their health as “good, very good, or excellent” was slightly higher among graduate students than undergraduate students.

Women enrolled in undergraduate programs with clear career goals seem to be aware of the benefits of graduate degrees and how they can advance their careers and economic prospects. Conversely, those with unclear career goals and strong family orientations are less interested in higher education. In addition, financial and time constraints associated with graduate programs are significant barriers.

Half of Utah women in higher education have considered leaving school due to financial hardship. Many undergraduate women did not consider attending graduate school because of the cost and time involved. These concerns could be alleviated if women understood that many graduate students receive financial support from their programs through assistantships and scholarships.

Another challenge for Utah women is learning to manage family responsibilities and education. This could be addressed by raising student awareness of child care services and offering mentoring programs that target students with children.

A final challenge was that women did not fully understand their career goals and the paths leading to them. Undergraduate students who were less inclined to attend graduate school often lacked knowledge about it, i.e. what graduate school entails, the resources available, the potential benefits, and the return on investment.

“Through this research, we realized the importance of raising awareness and removing barriers at the start of secondary and undergraduate education so that more women consider and consider pursuing higher education,” Lim said. “Higher education institutions, government agencies, businesses and individuals can innovate to support women in higher education, both financially and emotionally, so that more women obtain higher degrees. Taking action will not only lessen the gender disparity in higher education in Utah, but also move the needle in other areas of gender inequality in the state, including the gender pay gap.

The other authors of the report are Claudia Wright, USU Ph.D. candidate, and Emily S. Darowski, associate director, Utah Women & Leadership Project. To see the full report, including references, click here. For more information on UWLP programs and projects, visit utwomen.org.

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