By Julene Reese
Approximately 25,000 more males than females in Utah ages 18 and older have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. Recent data shows that female secondary students actually plan on attending college at higher rates than male students, but for varying reasons, they are less likely to graduate from college.
The Utah State University Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP) recently analyzed and reported data from Envision Utah, a nonprofit organization focused on topics related to the quality of life in Utah, including education. From October 2020 through February 2021, Envision Utah surveyed secondary students over the age of 13. The UWLP specifically focused on survey questions about students’ plans after high school, factors that affect educational decisions and barriers to pursuing higher education. Data from 6,018 participants were used.
According to 2020 U.S. Census data, 23.4% of Utah females 25 years or older have earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to 22.6% of men. Although statistics show gains in female educational attainment, females in Utah are more likely to have participated in some college with no degree (26.2%) or have an associate’s degree (11.1%), compared to males in Utah (24.9% and 8.8%, respectively). Additionally, Utah females (9.3%) have earned graduate or professional degrees at significantly lower rates than Utah males (14.1%).
Susan Madsen, USU’s UWLP founding director and a report author, said Utah females can be financially disadvantage by not completing a degree or by not pursuing an advanced degree.
“For this reason, it is critical to understand and address gender-related educational disparities,” she said. “It is also important to understand how Utah youth perceive higher education and what barriers they encounter when making decisions about going to college.”
When asked what they see as the most significant barriers to attending college, Utah females and males were most concerned about costs. Females had a significantly higher level of concern than males, and females were less comfortable with debt than males – 41.7% of males felt okay with $5,000 or more in student debt, compared to 34.5% of females. Females also believed that female college graduates, on average, earn less. More than half of males believed earning a bachelor’s degree would lead to an annual increase of $20,000 or more compared to someone with a high school diploma, while only 44.9% of females believed this to be true.
“Utah women experience one of the country’s largest wage gaps, earning about 69.8 cents for every dollar men earn,” said Carlee Dynes, a report author, UWLP intern and graduate student in sociology at Brigham Young University. “The cost of college may be especially challenging for women because they receive a lower return on investment for attending. Lower pay after graduation means they may struggle more to pay off student loan debt incurred during college.”
Other barriers female students reported higher than male students were the lack of information about applying to college, lack of time/flexibility to attend classes, the long-term commitment required for college and the need to work because of family responsibilities. This report suggests that female students are starting to think about how to balance multiple responsibilities at a young age.
Mental health barriers were also higher for female students than for males. Self-efficacy, the strength of the belief in one’s ability to achieve goals, was lower for females, and being fearful about a new environment was higher for females. Females also rated their mental health as a more significant barrier to college than males.
Although diversity was not defined in the survey, research suggests that representation matters, and increasing diversity on Utah’s college campuses may make it more likely that females, people of color, and sexual minority students attend and graduate from college.
The UWLP offers five recommendations to reduce female’s perceived barriers to college:
- Provide female students more financial support through expanded state-sponsored scholarship programs and private businesses.
- Improve the ways secondary schools provide information about applying for, financing and succeeding in higher education.
- Encourage Utah’s communities, schools and colleges to devote more resources to improving students’ self-efficacy and mental health.
- Encourage Utah’s colleges and universities to increase diversity on their campuses within student populations, faculty and staff.
- Consider adopting policies that encourage more students to attend college by removing burdensome application and enrollment processes.
“These recommendations could help mitigate the barriers Utah’s secondary female students perceive,” Madsen said. “This could prepare them more effectively for higher education, increase their graduation rates and better their futures.”
Emily S. Darowski, UWLP associate director, is an additional report author. To see the full report and references, click here. For further information about UWLP programs and projects, visit utwomen.org.