Sederburg: Utah should do more to help women get degrees

William A. Sederburg

Published: Friday, Oct. 14 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

As Commissioner of Higher Education, I get inundated with data about a variety of higher education issues. Most of the data (such as enrollment, retention rates, tuition, etc.) is predictable; the data typically supports long-held beliefs and practices.

Consequently, I was surprised by the results a recent survey of 1,200 Utah adults conducted by the Cicero Group of Salt Lake City. One set of questions particularly intrigued me. This set measured respondent's general thoughts about the value of education.

My prediction was that Utahns would identify the relationship between earning power and education as the most important benefit of education. We know from census data that Utahns with a college degree earn more than twice that of someone with a high school degree. Unemployment rates for college-educated individuals are half that of people with just a high school degree. There is a lot of supportive data. Indeed, I've spent some time making this argument on behalf of higher education.

Contrary to my theory, family and personal traits were identified as the greatest benefit of education. Of the 1,200 respondents, 65 percent agreed that education positively contributed to their "happiness with life." A similar 64 percent agreed that education contributed to the success of the respondent's children. Sixty percent said education contributed to their "effectiveness as a parent." By comparison, slightly more than half (54 percent) said education contributed to their "current compensation" and 58 percent said it contributed to "acquiring your present job."

Utah ranks 50th out of 50 states in the percentage of young women with college degrees. With above-average divorce rates and the highest percent of women in the workforce, we have to do better. The Utah Women and Education Project (UWEP, 2009-2011) found that this Utah trend is linked to the attitudes and aspirations of young women in the state. Utah experiences high marriage and pregnancy rates among college age students. Many young women are dropping out of college. In another part of the Cicero study, 36 percent of the college dropout subgroup said they dropped out to get married and have children. This was the most common reason given for dropping out of college (21 percent said finances).

The governor has created a Women's College Task Force to work on this issue. This educational task force, co-chaired by former Gov. Olene Walker and State Board of Regents Vice Chairwoman Bonnie Jean Beesley, aims to raise the educational aspirations of Utah's female population. Other members of the 24-person Utah Women's College Task Force include state business, educational and religious leaders, as well as several elected officials and nonprofit advocates.

I'm hopeful the task force will strengthen the understanding among Utahns that not only going to college, but also completing a credential, is important to being a good parent. Statistics show that women with higher education (especially a baccalaureate degree or higher) tend to give birth to healthier babies, be more confident, resilient and have improved reasoning and judgment, get more involved in the community and be involved in the political process and are more likely to have children that become college graduates. Education is about more than making money.

The issue is personal with me. My mother attended eight colleges before earning a teaching certificate. She was committed to completing her college work. I like to think it helped her be a good mother. She instilled in me and my sisters the belief that we would not stop short of earning a college degree.

Data is helpful in getting a picture of the Utah landscape. The data suggests that we need to and can do better in helping young women graduate from college. If not for jobs, for their families.

William A. Sederburg is Utah's Commissioner of Higher Education.

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