OREM — Why don't more women in Utah finish college?

It's a question that has vexed state higher education officials in recent years, and one that a study by Utah Valley University researchers is bringing into sharper focus.

At a conference Friday at UVU, the researchers presented initial findings that shed light on the attitudes of college-age women in Utah, including members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who struggle to reconcile the desire for a family with pursuing their own education.

Eighty percent of the 245 women who took part in two-hour interviews for the study are Mormon. And 74 percent of the participants said their religion teaches that education beyond high school is moderately or very important.

But Utah lags behind all other states in attainment of college degrees by women. The percentage attending college started to decrease in the early 1990s and dipped below the national average about 10 years ago.

Meanwhile, higher education officials say two-thirds of Utah's adult population will need some kind of degree or certificate to meet the state's workforce needs in 2020.

"We cannot be successful as a state by being 50th out of 50," William Sederburg, Utah's higher education commissioner and former president of UVU, said Friday.

Pamela Perlich, a research economist at the University of Utah, noted further that due to long-term trends and the recent recession, 2010 has seen more women than men working for the first time ever.

"Women in many cases have become the sole bread-winners in our families," Perlich said.

According to Susan Madsen, a business management professor who is leading the Utah Women and Education Project, the best way to get women through college is to hammer home at an early age the value of a degree, then surround them with a support network of encouraging teachers, counselors and family.

Her study found that many Mormon girls are encouraged to go to college but not necessarily to finish. Some survey participants said they saw no urgency to graduate, believing they would finish "someday." Others said that starting a family trumped college, and getting married ended their education.

"LDS young women get it that it's important to go to college. That's not the problem," Madsen said. "They don't see options. They do not see that one evening a week they could go to class and their husband could watch the kids. It's all or nothing."

Madsen and her colleagues recommended that efforts be made "to discuss how young women can integrate marriage, family and college." They also said realistic data, for example about divorce rates and economic challenges that could force women to work outside the home, should be presented in church settings so young women better understand the value of a college degree.

Over half of the study participants reported feeling little or no financial or emotional support from their parents to go to college.

Among those who started but didn't finish, the most-cited reasons were finances, feeling unprepared and family priorities.

Survey responses

Young LDS women participating in the UVU study reflected on their faith and college. Here are some selected comments from the study:

I think, especially in the LDS Church, religion greatly influences its members' educational decisions. We have been taught the importance of an education and while part of that is spiritual knowledge, temporal knowledge is also considered extremely important.

I am LDS and my religion really advocates continuing your education after high school. Even though we are encouraged to get married and start a family, the importance of getting a college education is also emphasized.

The prophet teaches that education is extremely important. It is something that prepares us for the future and whether or not we use it for a career, we need to get one if at all possible. The prophet also says that it is something that is OK to go into debt for.

My religion teaches education is not merely a good idea, it's a commandment. … They say it's important to strive, learn and study in our lives and seek knowledge from the best books. They encourage getting education but do not expect us to get a degree.