National statistics show that more women enroll in college than men, but in Utah, women remain a minority at many of the state's colleges and universities.
To address that trend, Susan Madsen, a Utah Valley University business professor, has launched a yearlong study to determine why women in the Beehive State seem less interested in higher education than their national peers.
"We think we're encouraging young women in Utah to be educated," Madsen said. "But there are a lot of young women — and young men, for that matter — who choose not to go to college."
Madsen is leading a group of women educators and researchers in the Women in Education Project, a study commissioned by the Utah System of Higher Education, to examine why fewer women in the state tend to pursue higher education than their peers in other states. The researchers will compare data, conduct interviews among college dropouts and high-school guidance counselors and combine the findings into a series of reports over the next 12 months, with the goal of providing policymakers and community leaders with a better understanding of why Utah women aren't heading to college.
Nationwide, 57 percent of college students are women. Across Utah's public higher-education system, that number is about 49 percent, according to the latest 2009 fall enrollment numbers.
Utah Commissioner of Higher Education William Sederburg said there is a national push to help more people earn baccalaureate degrees. Over the years, Utah has lost ground in comparison with the national average of college-educated people, falling below average in recent years, according to a recent report by the Utah Foundation.
Currently, only about 28 percent of Utahns have a college degree, compared with 29 percent of people nationwide. In order to reach a statewide goal of 55 percent to 60 percent, Sederburg said, more women — and more men — will need higher education.
"It's just one area that has real potential," he said of the female student population, which he believes might suffer when compared with national averages because of a local cultural factor of women tending to marry and start families at younger ages in Utah, contributing to fewer female students in colleges and universities.
Another hypothesis could be the tightening economic situations in the homes of students.
"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."
Sederburg said more could probably be done in the form of on-campus child care or part-time student scholarships to help more women complete a degree.
While some schools — including Utah State University, Weber State University, Snow College, Southern Utah University, Dixie State College and the College of Eastern Utah — have actually enrolled more women this year, the larger schools in the state — the University of Utah, Salt Lake Community College and UVU — serve a proportionately larger number of male students. However, all of Utah's schools serve fewer women than their national counterparts.
Data was not available for Brigham Young University, because as a private school, it does not have to publicly release its enrollment numbers.
CEU, for example, educates more male students due to the availability of male-dominated jobs such as coal mining and power-plant work in the college's local area, but CEU spokesman Brad King said more women are enrolled in career and transfer programs there, including large cohorts studying cosmetology and nursing. Men at CEU tend to take short-term training routes to quicker employment.
"We are definitely overrepresented by women in the traditional fields," he said, which is quite different from schools with larger enrollments.
The numbers have not only caught the attention of educators but also of business owners and social workers in Utah, who are seeing divorce rates rise just as highly as in other states, which leaves more uneducated single moms. Women are finding themselves unprepared to support their own families to the degree they could have had they gone to college, according to Madsen.
The lack of college-educated women also makes it difficult for employers to hire the qualified, diverse and educated work force they desire.
"It's a great project," Madsen said of her group's study. "Everyone we talk to seems to get it and agrees that it's really important."
She said the first report, detailing collected data, would be available by the end of the year. In the spring, another report will focus on interviews of a wide variety of people to uncover the beliefs, attitudes, intentions and behaviors that steer young women toward or away from college.
Funding for the study comes from a number of grants, including a $65,000 U.S. Department of Education Carl D. Perkins State Leadership grant, and $7,500 from the UVU Center for Engaged Learning.