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Are Ivy League women who stay at home wasting their degrees?

Published: Thursday, Aug. 22 2013 7:00 a.m. MDT

Women who attend elite universities are less likely to work and more likely to work fewer hours if they do work. Are these women "wasting" their prestigious degrees?

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Women who attend elite universities are less likely to work and more likely to work fewer hours if they do work, according a study by economist Joni Hersch titled "Opting Out among Women with Elite Education." In the New York Daily News, Hersch said this is likely because of who women at elite schools choose as a life partner.

"There are several reasons. One of the reasons is in fact the spouse. Tier one graduates are more likely to be married to men who have higher earnings potential."

This is a waste of talent and education, say some observers. In an article in the Guardian titled “Female Ivy League graduates have a duty to stay in the workforce,” Keli Goff argued that a woman who obtains an elite education has an obligation to use it pursuing a high-power career outside the home.

“Any Harvard Law School degree obtained by a woman who then chooses not to use it in any sort of professional capacity throughout most of her life is a wasted opportunity,” Goff wrote. “That degree could have gone to a woman who does want to spend her entire life using it to advance the cause of women — or others in need of advancement — not simply advancing the lives of her own family at home, which is a noble cause, but not one requiring an elite degree.”

Goff suggested changing admissions policies so that one must declare what one plans to do with a degree. “There's nothing wrong with someone saying that her dream is to become a full-time mother by 30. That is an admirable goal. What is not admirable is for her to take a slot at Yale Law School that could have gone to a young woman whose dream is to be in the Senate by age 40 and in the White House by age 50.”

Responding to Goff, Princeton graduate and stay-at-home mom Anne-Marie Maginnis argued in Verily Magazine that viewing an elite degree as a “wasted opportunity” is narrow-minded and regressive for the women’s’ movement. Maginnis wrote, “If a woman at home doesn’t need an elite degree, as Goff argues, one wonders, does she need a college degree? A high-school degree? At what point is a woman not worth educating at all?”

Maginnis also argued that Goff’s premise had a number of flawed assumptions. For example, a number of women re-enter the workforce after their children have entered school. Additionally, women who stay at home have more time to dedicate to volunteer, civic and educational organizations in their communities. Finally, and perhaps most meaningfully, she said, women with elite educations raise their children to be intelligent, confident leaders, “weav(ing) the riches of her education into their lives in continuous, subtle, living ways.”

“We call the schools from which we graduate ‘alma mater,’ nourishing mother, and I have always been grateful to Princeton for being just that,” Maginnis wrote. “Now that I am a mother myself, however, and as I nourish the bodies and minds of my own children, I find yet deeper meaning in those words.”

EMAIL: dmerling@deseretnews.com

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