Understanding the Gender Gap in Utah Higher Education: Quantitative Findings

Utah ranks as the worst state for women’s equality in many areas, including wages, education, health, and political empowerment. Although many factors contribute to these inequities, of particular importance is the gender gap in higher education. In the early 2010s, Utah women’s college graduation rate was 10.0% lower than the national average. Utah has the largest educational attainment gap among advanced degree holders (higher than a bachelor’s degree). Nationally, 13.0% of females and 12.4% of males have obtained a graduate degree. In Utah, only 9.3% of females have obtained a graduate degree, compared to 14.1% of males.  

Gender disparities within higher education are directly and indirectly linked to many economic and social outcomes at the individual, family, and state levels. Thus, promoting women’s degree attainment in higher education, including graduate education, is critical to address the issue of gender inequality in Utah. In spite of the magnitude of Utah’s gender gap in higher education and its implications on individuals and the community, we have limited knowledge about the underlying causes and mechanisms. To better understand this area of disparity, we collected quantitative and qualitative data examining resources and challenges of women pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees.  

Study Background 

The survey collected information on Utah women’s educational goals and resources, along with sociodemographic information (i.e., race, marital status, religion, location, employment, and health ratings). 

The survey results are reported as follows.  

  • Characteristics of survey participants  
  • Education and career goals as well as challenges and resources of Utah women in undergraduate programs 
  • Responses of Utah women in graduate programs to similar questions about goals, challenges, and resources 
  • Key findings and recommendations for reducing gender disparity in Utah higher education 

Characteristics of Survey Participants 

Women in graduate programs were older and more diverse in terms of race/ethnicity and religious affiliation compared to those in undergraduate programs. In addition, women in graduate programs were more likely to be married/cohabiting and have at least one child. Graduate students worked at higher rates and were more likely to hold regular, full-time jobs than undergraduates. Additionally, the percentage of women who rated their health to be “good, very good, or excellent” was slightly higher among graduate students than among undergraduates. 

Undergraduate Education and Career Goals 

The first set of survey questions asked undergraduate women to identify their educational motivations. About 30.0% wanted to learn skills necessary or required for a desired job. In addition, about 17.0% chose college to increase potential earnings. More than half of undergraduate women planned to find a job related to their degrees. It is also worth noting that about one out of four women wanted to find a job that could be combined with family responsibilities or to focus solely on family responsibilities without holding a job. To better understand Utah women’s educational aspirations and goals, we asked whether women plan to go to graduate school. We found the following:  

  • 49.5% chose “definitely yes” or “probably yes”  
  • 24.1% women were not sure  
  • 26.4% chose “probably not” or “definitely not”  

Almost half of respondents consider going to graduate school. This result is somewhat surprising, given that Utah is the state with the largest gender gap in advanced education among all states. 

Undergraduate Challenges and Resources 

One of the main purposes of this study was to examine the challenges and resources that Utah women have when they pursue higher education. For this purpose, we asked whether respondents have ever considered leaving college. Half of the women in undergraduate programs said they have thought about leaving college. The primary reason they considered leaving school was financial difficulties. 

Graduate Education and Career Goals 

Turning now to results from graduate students, analyses indicated that 63.0% of Utah women in graduate programs went to graduate school to learn skills necessary for the job that they want to get or to learn more about what they are interested in. In addition, one of five said they were in a graduate program to increase potential earnings. When asked how they envision themselves in 10 years, women in graduate programs indicated a stronger career orientation: 63.3% said that they would be employed full-time (compared to 40.1% of women in undergraduate programs). On the contrary, only one of five women in graduate programs mentioned family in their future life goals/circumstances: 6.7% anticipated raising a family, and 16.3% indicated their goals would depend on work and family situations. This may relate to the average higher age of graduate students, many of whom already have at least one child. 

Graduate Challenges and Resources 

When asked whether they ever considered leaving graduate school, 47.1% of women responded they had. The primary factor was financial difficulties (42.6%). The second biggest reason was being too busy with work (33.3%), which suggests the difficulty of combining work and study. The next reason noted by Utah women in graduate programs was childcare responsibilities (14.8%). 

Summary & Recommendations 

In this brief, we reported survey results of more than 1,000 Utah women enrolled in undergraduate or graduate programs to demonstrate the similarities and differences among women at different stages of their education. Findings from our data indicate that Utah women pursuing undergraduate and advanced education face significant challenges and point toward potential strategies to reduce the gender gap in Utah higher education.  

  • First, it is critical to relieve financial burdens of women pursuing higher education. It would be helpful to expand programs that cover costs associated with higher education, such as work programs, grants, and scholarships.  
  • Second, many women bear family responsibilities that add additional stress when they are working toward an undergraduate or advanced degree.  
  • Third, it is necessary to give Utah women in college opportunities to understand their career goals more fully and to provide pathways to realize those goals. Almost half (49.5%) of undergraduate women are thinking about attending graduate school, but we know that substantially fewer are pursuing and completing advanced degrees. 

Conclusion  

Overall, the findings indicate that women in higher education have long-term goals related to career and family. Implementing various programs (e.g., voluntary/involuntary career workshops, courses, and counseling) could help undergraduate women understand the benefits of advanced education. Institutions of higher education, government agencies, businesses, and individuals need to innovate ways of supporting women in higher education, both financially and emotionally, so more women complete advanced degrees. Taking vital steps will not only mitigate gender disparity observed at the level of advanced education in Utah but will move the needle in other areas of gender inequity in the state, such as the gender wage gap. 

To learn more about the gender gap in Utah higher education, read the full brief.

Photo Credit: Bronson Teichert

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