Op-ed: Education is key to improving women’s standing in Utah

First Published      Last Updated Dec 27 2014 06:00 pm

Utah was recently listed in a New York Post article as one of five places in the world women should not visit. In October, Utah was ranked as the worst state for women by 24/7Wallst.com. Personally, I think Utah is a great state for women, but I would argue that we can make improvements. And, at the heart of social change efforts should be increasing the college graduate rates of Utah women.

I often hear partial or incorrect data cited that gives some the impression that we no longer need to worry about Utah women and college graduation. But, this is far from the truth!

First, in 2012 The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that "of 51 metropolitan areas with at least one million people, the Washington, D.C., area had the most highly educated population, and the Fresno, Calif., area the least. The greatest differences between the sexes were found in the Salt Lake City area, where men surpassed women in bachelor's-degree attainment by 9.3 percentage points, and the Orlando, Fla., area, where women surpassed men by 6.8 percentage points."

Second, the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE) provided data last year that compared Utah and national cohorts from 2005-2011 for bachelor degree seeking students at public four-year institutions. When you glance at the Utah graduation data by gender, it does look like women (50-53 percent) are doing better than men (44-48 percent). Yet, six-year cohorts are troublesome in Utah because rarely does a young man who serves a two-year LDS mission graduate with a bachelor's within the six-year window. Although some data adjustments are done for this situation, it is still not accurate. Although male returned missions are more likely to graduate in eight years, national comparison data is only available for six-year cohorts.

So should we stop worrying about Utah women? Of course not! If we only compare statistics between Utah men and women, we actually lose a lot of helpful data. Most people are shocked to learn that the percentage of Utah women who start college and then graduate with bachelor's degrees is 8 percent to 11 percent below the national average. We have one of the highest percentages of women in the nation who have "some college, no degree." Although progress has been made, we do not have enough Utah women completing college. It is still too early to tell if the LDS mission age change from 21 to 19 years of age for women is going to impact these percentages either.

Third, USHE data confirms that Utah women in 2010 received 10 percent more associate and six percent fewer bachelor's degrees than Utah males. We are also the second to the lowest (46 percent) and the lowest (41 percent) state for master's and doctorate degrees awarded to women.

The bottom line is that Utah men and women are not matching the completion rates of their U.S. counterparts. But, as we strive to improve completion rates for all Utahns, we cannot devalue the focus on women. Each gender faces its own unique barriers. Providing messaging directly to girls and women about college is critical as women's desires, motivations and lives are often different than men. More college educated women in Utah will help strengthen our state. It will provide the knowledge and confidence women need to run for office, apply for workplace promotions and contribute in the community. This will help our state grow stronger and get us off those dang low ranking lists!

Susan Madsen is the Orin R. Woodbury professor of leadership and ethics at Utah Valley University's Woodbury School of Business.