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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Stephanie Cheney is surrounded by men as she walks down a hallway at UVU, where 43 percent of students are women.

SALT LAKE CITY — Although Emily Rasely hasn't noticed much of a discrepancy among the numbers of male and female students in her own department, she has seen a lot more guys walking around on the "other side" of campus, where there are more hard science courses offered.

"Perhaps culturally, women are better prepared to handle courses offered in the humanities," the University of Utah senior said. Rasely has a tri-fold study plan, majoring in gender studies, English and history, all three of which complement each other, she says, making her education interesting and meaningful. The mix of men and women in her classes creates a "more balanced learning experience," Rasely said.

In Utah, about 49 percent of enrolled college students are women, as opposed to 57 percent across the country, according to the Utah Women and Education Project, which released a study on women in education Tuesday. The two schools with the lowest percentages of female students are also the state's largest public universities: Utah Valley University has a student body that is 43 percent female, and 44 percent of students at the U. are women.

Utah's higher education chief William Sederburg commissioned a statewide study last year to understand how to better encourage more women into college. He has said the low representation is likely due to a cultural phenomenon of Utah women marrying and starting families younger than the national average. Economics is another hypothesis.

"As tuition increases, married couples often find they can only afford to send one person to college at a time," Sederburg said. "Typically, it is the woman who steps back."

While women aren't as represented in Utah's System of Higher Education as their male counterparts, results from the recent study say they should be. Research by the Utah Women and Education Project finds that colleges and universities can help society by turning out more socially responsible and health-conscious individuals of both sexes.

"The conversations throughout the state seem to reveal that people are not recognizing the broad benefits of education," said Susan Thackeray, one of the research brief's co-authors. She said information on why the numbers are low, and what messages aren't getting across to women, is critical in order for people to "see the bigger picture when it comes to the value of education."

According to the report, college-educated people smoke less, exercise more and enjoy a host of other health-related benefits. One study cited in the brief indicates that "each additional year of schooling past high school seems to prolong life by .4 percent, or nearly 2 percentage points upon graduation from college."

Benefits, however, aren't limited to health and well-being, or even economic advantages. Research shows that education impacts community involvement levels, voting and social development as students develop a better sense of independence and feeling of control over their lives, which influences their interpersonal and leadership skills. College-educated women also have healthier babies and their children are more likely to attend a college or university.

Recent Brigham Young University graduate Sarah Crane said her education has definitely made her life better, and not only in the form of knowing more.

"I may not remember how to solve that statistical equation, but I know how to learn and to think critically and to apply that knowledge," she said, adding that her new-and-improved self has the experience to make more informed decisions regarding a variety of topics.

"I know more about how the world works," Crane said. She believes that as the years progress, higher education becomes increasingly more important for women especially, who with it can change their circumstances most profoundly.

Sure, the economic and parenting advantages are apparent, but the civic engagement angle is one that is rarely thought of, said Susan Madsen, a UVU business professor leading the Utah study.

"I'm not sure a lot of people have made that connection," she said. "Voting, volunteering, even giving blood; they all increase when women are college educated."

Madsen believes young women must not be getting the message that education can be so beneficial.

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The group will now focus on some of the reasons behind the dearth of female college students and take a closer look at detailed enrollment and graduation numbers to understand how schools can improve. In the meantime, Madsen said it's important for people to realize that higher education is about more than a bigger paycheck down the line. The most recent research can be found online at www.uvu.edu.wep.

"We try to stress the words 'develop your potential,' because that's what it's all about," she said. "It's not just about working. It's about being all you can be."

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com