Susan R. Madsen: Graduate degrees can go a long way in advancing women

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah in Salt Lake City begins their celebration of its largest graduating class with 8,568 graduates for their 2018 commencement ceremonies on Thursday, May 3, 2018, on their way to the Jon M. Huntsman Center.

From its beginning, Utah has prioritized higher education for both men and women. The University of Utah is the oldest university west of the Mississippi, having opened its doors in 1850, and admitted women by its second semester. And Brigham Young Academy, which started in 1875 and became a university in 1903, has always been open to men and women. Currently Utah is ranked the 11th most educated state (and 13th for quality) by WalletHub, which is wonderful.

And here is the part where I urge us to do better. According to the U.S. Census, 9.2% of Utah women (compared to 13.5% nationally) and 13.5% of Utah men earn graduate degrees — a gap of 4.3%. And because of this, Utah is ranked on WalletHub’s “Best & Worst States for Women’s Equality” as the worst state in the nation on the key indicator titled, “Disparity in Advanced Educational Attainment.” Yet, graduate degrees can go a long way in advancing women financially and professionally.

Let’s start with the paycheck. Average earnings for individuals with advanced degrees ($1,545-$1,885 median usual weekly earnings) are quite a bit higher than for those with a high school diploma ($781), associate’s ($938) or bachelor’s ($1,305). Unemployment rates also decrease substantially the more education an individual obtains. Another source reported that the difference in earnings between those who completed bachelor’s compared to graduate degrees in the same field vary by college major, ranging from 22.9% to 63.3%.

Many employed women find that there are more than just financial advantages in heading back to grad school. A higher degree often means more opportunities, and it is not uncommon for some employers to help pay for further education.

Graduate school can also open doors to different job opportunities — whether changing industries or sectors or shifting careers altogether. As I’ve made it my job to promote women across the state, I have the privilege of meeting with countless women of all ages and stages who want to go back to school to prepare for new pursuits. Some want to reenter the workforce when they become an empty nester, while others want to find careers that can better dovetail with raising a family. Some need careers with better pay, while others feel called to go back to school to pursue a deferred dream.

One friend of mine was contemplating starting a master’s in marriage and family therapy but wondered if she was too old at 53. I laughed and reminded her that in three years she’ll be 56 no matter what she does, so she might as well invest in a profession she’ll enjoy and will provide her with deeper purpose. She reported back that not only was she not the oldest in her class, but at least a third of her cohort are women with children who have gone back to school.

Since women born in Utah today typically live to 80, many of us can expect to shift our primary roles several times. I currently value my roles as wife, mother and grandmother while also teaching, speaking and writing on behalf of women and girls in Utah. When I decided to get a doctorate, some people warned me that it was an “either/or” proposition and that I could not possibly manage school and family. And while I would never call it easy, I will always say it was worth it for the many doors it opened and the blessings it has provided.

I am not alone in my desire to see more women seek advanced degrees. Nationally the trend is to keep pursuing education, with many people now calling the master’s degree the “new bachelor’s degree.” And not only does Utah offer high quality education, it is one of the most cost effective states to get advanced degrees. I urge the women in Utah to invest in yourself. You’re worth it.

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the Inaugural Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership & Director, Utah Women & Leadership Project, Utah State University.