Utahns like to go to college more than just about anybody else in America. And they like to brag about it.

When boosters from the state's Division of Economic Development woo out-of-state businesses, they point out that the state is tied with Colorado for the highest percentage of its residents with at least some college education.But there's another statistic that the state doesn't mention. Or notice, or sometimes even believe. When former University of Utah Provost James Clayton told legislators about it earlier this year, some of them insisted it couldn't be true.

Look at the numbers, Clayton told them: According to the U.S. Department of Education, Utah ranks dead last in the percentage of women enrolled in its colleges and universities. And dead last in the percentage of college graduates who are women.

- Enrollment: According to data for 1988, the most recent year for which figures are available nationwide, Alaska, Delaware and Vermont top the list of states with the highest percentage - 57 percent - of women students.

At 47 percent, Utah is at the bottom, seven percentage points below the national average. Utah's figures include all 11 institutions of higher education, including private, two-year and technical colleges.

In only one other state - North Dakota - are fewer than 50 percent of the students women.

- Graduation: According to 1987 figures, Delaware has the highest percentage of women getting bachelor's degrees - 59 percent of all graduates are women.

At 41 percent, Utah is at the bottom again, 10 points below the national average.

"Why do we need to be the caboose on such an important issue?" wonders Clayton.

But it's not Utah's last-place distinction that bothers him the most. More importantly, he says, is the fact that the fewer female college graduates a state has, the more women it has who will get low-paying jobs.

Utah's women aren't preparing themselves for the marketplace, he says.

Figures from the Utah Department of Employment Security report that women need to attend more years of school than men do if they want to take home comparable paychecks. According to a 1989 report from the Utah Department of Employment Security, the median income of Utah women with three years of college is less than the median income of Utah men with a seventh-grade education.

But young women in Utah still often don't foresee careers, or even jobs, in their futures, notes Karen Shepherd, state senator-elect.

"The most dramatic demonstration I had of that was when I spoke at the Brighton High Girls' Day" several years ago, she says. "I asked them how many thought they would work at least six years of their lives, and only one-fourth of the audience raised their hands. Then I asked them how many of their mothers worked and three-fourths of them raised their hands.

"They're still trapped in the space between what they think they should do versus what really will happen to them."

U.S. Department of Education figures show that many more Utah women start college than actually finish. In 1988, 51.8 percent of all Utah college freshmen were women. That's only 2 percentage points below the national average.

But somewhere between their freshman year and graduation, Utah women tend to drop out at greater rates than their counterparts in other states.

Although Utah's colleges and universities don't keep statistics about why students leave school, there is likely a connection between the drop out figure and another bit of Utah trivia: the average Utah woman marries when she is 21 years old, three years younger than the average woman in the United States.

"The woman's role is fairly narrowly defined in this society," says Clayton about Utah's culture. The usual expectation for young married couples, he adds, is that the woman will put her husband through school.

In general, says Kathryn H. Brooks, director of the University of Utah's Women's Resource Center, education is valued in Utah - but women often don't view it as something they themselves really need.

"It's a family issue, it's a school issue, it's a societal issue and in Utah it's a church issue," says Wm. Rolfe Kerr, Utah's commissioner of higher education.

Families, schools, churches and local governments, he says, need to work harder at articulating the importance of education for women.

Although Utah ranks last in enrollment and graduation rates for women, there are signs of change:

- The percentage of Utah college students who are women has gone up in the past decade. In 1977, for example, women accounted for only 43 percent of Utah enrollment, compared to 47 percent in 1988.

Figures for fall quarter, 1990, show a continued increase: Women students now make up 48 percent of the total, and this year women made up 56 percent of the enrollment increase at Utah's public colleges and universities.

- At the University of Utah, a newly formed task force will look at "Expanding Opportunities for Women on Campus," including enrollment, graduation rates and faculty appointments.

- Salt Lake Community College, Utah Valley Community College and Dixie College have established "gender equity centers" to help local school districts explore issues such as achievement and expectations among high school women.

- At Bountiful High School, assistant principal Cristine Blanch will initiate a program next year to encourage higher education as an option for women students. Among the topics for discussion, says Blanch, will be "how awful it is to be working at minimum wage."

- The State Board of Regents is encouraging Utah's colleges and universities to "address the child-care issue" on campuses. In an information report issued last spring, the board noted that female-headed single-parent families make up almost 25 percent of all Utah families with children, and that many Utah women have to forgo a college education because of the unavailability of quality low-cost child care.

- Several Utah universities have established satellite centers in outlying areas, which make it easier for "location-bound" Utahns - women with children, for example - to attend college.