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Utahns have a large gender gap in higher education, and the state is also falling behind national averages for graduation from public four-year schools, said Susan Madsen in her keynote speech at United Way of Salt Lake’s Women and Education Summit Tuesday morning.
“Utah men and women are not matching completion rates of U.S. counterparts,” said Madsen, founder of the Utah Women and Education Project and the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Utah Valley University. In public, four-year schools, Utah graduation rates for both men and women are about 9 percent lower than the national average.
Madsen acknowledged that the missions many Utahns serve for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could make statistical comparisons across the board more difficult. However, even with accounting for that, she said graduation is much lower.
And only 43 percent of women graduate in Utah’s eight public institutions of higher education, compared to 56 percent nationally. Utah also has a 6 percent gap between women and men who have Bachelor’s degrees, which is the largest gap in the nation, Madsen said.
All of this has a dramatic impact both on the future of individuals and the state. Median income rises and unemployment falls when a higher percentage of the population has a college degree. Madsen said employers are being drawn to the state with the promise of an educated workforce, but that is increasingly threatened. Between 1994 and 2009, the 18- to 24-year-old population grew by 40 percent, while first-time freshman enrollment grew by only 20 percent.
Part of the battle is getting people to stay in school, Madsen said. Utah has 24 percent of its workforce with some college, but no degree, compared to 18 percent nationally. She said too many students, particularly women, start school and drop out, in large part because of financial and family concerns.
Many women drop out when they begin having children because they have a hard time seeing children and education as an integrated life. Many also think they will never have to work out of necessity, an assumption Madsen said statistics do not support.
Programs like Prosperity 2020 set good goals to improve the number of Utahns with post-secondary education, but Madsen said many other factors encourage men and women to start and finish school.
Parents with higher education, volunteer and leadership experience, family financial support and people who talk to kids from an early age about graduating from higher education are among some of the many things that increase the odds someone will finish school, Madsen said.
After realizing the profound impact talking to people about college can have, Madsen said she began reaching out to even more people about their post-high school plans and experiences with college. She talked about it so much that she joked her “whole neighborhood has gone back to school.”
“We can do more, and sometimes it only takes a minute,” she said. “…We need more women who will step up to do things, hard things, in our nation and our world.”