Perceptions of Higher Education: Gender Differences in Utah Secondary School Students

According to 2020 US Census data, 20.6% of females 25 years or older have earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to 19.8% of men. Within the same age group in Utah, females show the same pattern: 23.4% have earned a bachelor’s compared to 22.6% of males. Although statistics show gains in female educational attainment, females in Utah are more likely to have participated in some college with no degree or have an associate degree, compared to males in Utah. Additionally, although national rates show more females than males have earned graduate or professional degrees, Utah females (9.3%) have earned them at significantly lower rates than Utah males (14.1%). Utah females can be financially disadvantaged by not completing a degree or by not pursuing an advanced degree. Thus, it is critical to understand and address gender-related educational disparities.  

A recent Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP) brief referenced these statistics and reported data about how Utah women enrolled in undergraduate or graduate programs perceive higher education. It is also important to gauge how Utah youth perceive higher education and what barriers they encounter when deciding whether to go to college. This research brief reports data from an Envision Utah survey of secondary students. Our purpose is to determine what, if any, differences exist between male and female responses. We also compare the results with national data and review applicable literature. Finally, we offer recommendations that could help mitigate barriers that Utah’s secondary students experience, prepare them more effectively for higher education, and increase their graduation rates. 

Setting the Stage 

Envision Utah is a nonprofit organization founded in 1997 with the purpose of engaging “Utahns in collaborative, bottom-up decision making” and is focused on helping Utah maintain a high quality of life as the population grows. Envision Utah works on a variety of issues related to quality of life, including education. From October 2020 through February 2021, Envision Utah conducted a survey of secondary students over age 13. The survey asked more than 100 questions; this brief focuses on questions that asked students about their plans after high school, factors that affect educational decisions, and barriers to pursuing higher education. After applying eligibility criteria, data from 6,018 participants were used in the analytic sample. Although the data have limitations, the results offer important insights about how female secondary students have different experiences and educational plans from those of male students. 

More Females Plan to Attend College 

National research has shown that females are more likely to plan on attending college. The Envision Utah data suggest that Utah females in secondary school are similarly ambitious when asked about college plans. In the sample, more females indicated they plan to attend either a two-year or a four-year college or university. More males indicated they plan to enlist in the military; they also tended to select going to trade school or entering the workforce more than females. 

Females Perceive Barriers as More Significant 

The Envision Utah data offer insight into why fewer secondary students graduate from college than plan to attend, and why the disparity is larger for females. When asked what they see as the most significant barriers to attending college for themselves or others, females and males responded in statistically different ways. The results indicate females perceived each potential barrier as more significant than did the males. 

  • Resource Barriers: Responding to the barriers question, Utah female secondary students were concerned about lack of external resources, such as money, information, and time. Although both females and males were most concerned with the costs associated with attending college (i.e., “costs” had the highest average rating followed by “student loans”), females in the study had a statistically significant higher level of concern. 
  • Self-Efficacy & Mental Health Barriers: Self-efficacy “refers to the strength of your belief in your ability to achieve goals.” In other words, individuals with higher self-efficacy are internally confident that they can take on a task and do well. Research about self-efficacy in high school females suggests that students’ beliefs about their competence are impacted by many factors and that females have, on average, lower self-efficacy than males. Mental health is a related internal factor. Female survey respondents rated their mental health as a more significant barrier to going to college, and, in fact, this barrier had the largest gender difference. 

Support for Solutions 

The Envision Utah survey listed possible solutions to college barriers and asked students to rate their effectiveness. 

  • Provide more resources and information about paying for college 
  • Provide better info about applying to college 
  • Eliminate tuition for two- or four-year colleges 
  • Automatically submit applications to state colleges for all high school students 
  • Advertise trade schools or two-year colleges better 
  • Shorten bachelor’s degree programs to less than four years 
  • Automatically enroll students in a college success course 
  • Automatically enroll students in college when they graduate high school 

In all cases, females rated solutions as more effective than males; the differences were statistically significant in every case except advertising trade schools and two-year colleges more effectively. 

Summary & Recommendations 

Results from the Envision Utah study show that the perceptions and plans of Utah’s female and male secondary students differ in statistically significant ways. In this section, we summarize key findings and recommend several strategies that may effectively reduce perceived barriers to college. 

First, female students are more worried about the costs of attending college. Given that female students face a lower return on investment after earning a bachelor’s degree, they would benefit from additional financial support when pursuing higher education. 

Second, female students, more than male students, feel as if they lack information about college. Improving the ways that secondary schools provide information about applying for, financing, and succeeding in higher education will require more local efforts, many of which can be implemented in cost-effective ways (e.g., application workshops, online resources, career fairs). 

Third, Utah’s communities, schools, and colleges should devote more resources to improving students’ self-efficacy and mental health. Self-efficacy is an important topic in education, and Utah should be at the forefront of adapting new teaching curriculum and practices as they emerge from scholarship. 

Fourth, Utah’s colleges should increase diversity on their campuses within student populations, faculty, and staff. As Utah colleges and universities develop these efforts they can use Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion resources developed by the Utah System of Higher Education. 

Finally, Utah should consider adopting policies that encourage more students to attend college by removing the burden of the application and enrollment process. Other states (e.g., Idaho, Colorado, and Arizona) have explored automatic enrollment strategies and provide examples of policy and implementation strategies. 


Results from the recent Envision Utah study of secondary students show gender differences in the educational experiences and aspirations of Utah’s youth. By drawing attention to these differences, we urge Utah policy makers and educators at all levels to seriously consider what female students perceive to be significant barriers to attending college, and how these barriers might contribute to gender gaps in graduation rates (e.g., leaving college without a degree, not pursuing advanced degrees). We call on educational administrators and all community leaders to address cost as a barrier to college and to engage in further dialogue about proposed solutions. Further, we encourage more initiatives that focus on providing information to students, improving mental health, and increasing diversity and belonging. In our efforts to close gender gaps in higher education, most—if not all—solutions will mutually benefit all secondary students as they pursue higher education and better their futures. 

To learn more about perceptions of higher education gender differences, read the full brief.

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November 2022 Newsletter

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