1 of 19
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
University of Utah. Graduation rates Monday, July 30, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY — The number of college-age adults in Utah with a post-secondary degree rose by more than 5,000 from 2009 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Officials say the numbers are promising, but more work is required to reach Utah's education goals, especially among female students who continue to lag beyond their counterparts in other states in completing college.

In 2010, there were 168,410 graduates in the state between the ages of 25 and 34, or 38.5 percent of Utah's population of 25- to 34-year-olds. That number was 0.4 percent higher than in 2009, about equal to the percent average for that age group nationally.

While the increase reflects that more Utahns are pursuing higher education, the numbers alone do not necessarily offer good news about the rate of completion by those beginning a college education. More students attending school means more students both failing and succeeding at completing their studies. And the state-by-state figures also reflect those who completed degrees out of state, but who now reside in Utah.

Pamela Silberman, communications director for the Utah System of Higher Education, said the numbers offer a snapshot of a narrow segment of the state's adult population.

"Obviously there are many, many more people over the age of 34 that have some postsecondary degree," she said.

The Obama Administration has stated a goal of re-establishing the United States as the world's leader in percentage of adults with college degrees. The U.S. is currently ranked 16th.

"We've made some progress, but the combination of deep state budget cuts and rising tuition prices is pushing an affordable college education out of reach for middle class families," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at a meeting of the National Governors Association earlier this month.

"As the president has said, the countries that out-educate today will out-compete us tomorrow."

Utah is currently pursuing it's own higher education goal. The Prosperity 2020 campaign seeks to have 66 percent of Utahns between the ages of 25 and 64 holding some form of postsecondary certificate or degree by 2020. Currently, Utah is at about 43 percent, Silberman said, and the past few years have seen increases in both college enrollment and completion.

"We're on track but we can't get complacent about it," she said. "We have to push very hard."

In the statistics released by the Census Bureau, which included Washington, D.C., Utah ranks dead center at 25th. Silberman said Utah's rates are dogged by a number of factors, notably the low graduation rate of female students.

"Women have some of the lowest graduation rates in the country here," she said. "They don't have good completion."

Utah has the largest gap in the nation between male and female college-graduation rates, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services. The difference for college-educated Utah men and Utah women was 6.0 percentage points. New Jersey showed the next highest gap at 2.7 percentage points, while the national average was 1.3 percentage points.

Silberman said a key issue in women's graduation rates is students who drop out of school due to marriage or pregnancy. She said it has as much to do with "the realities of life crashing in" as it does the many female students who enter college with no expectation of completing their degrees.

She said Utah's divorce rate, which is comparable to the national average, combined with the state's high drop-out rate for women makes for an alarming number of under-educated women in the workforce.

"Women need to go into it with an expectation of getting some degree," she said. "We have a very high percentage of working mothers in the state."

Ann Berghout-Austin, director of the Center for Women and Gender at Utah State University, said she and her staff often work with women who are returning to school for reasons such as divorce, death of a partner, or insufficient income.

She agreed with Silberman about dropouts who never expected to finish school, but added that many women have difficulty navigating the Utah culture that celebrates both education and family, with a high value on the well-being of children. Many women, she said, elect to postpone or delay their degrees in order to be at home with their children as much as possible.

"There's all kinds of circumstances," she said.

A statewide initiative to encourage women to complete their studies will begin this fall, Silberman said. Last year a task force convened to research the barriers women experience in education.

That task force produced a list of recommendations — like mentoring programs, flexible class attendance and a media campaign to promote a "College-Going Culture" — that will be used in working with community groups and educational institutions, Silberman said. 

Lauren Bean, a 24-year-old who recently graduated from USU in interdisciplinary studies, said earning a degree was always a priority for her, whether or not she got married in college. She said it's clear to her that a college education is necessary if she doesn't want to earn minimum wage for the rest of her life.

"It's always something to fall back on," she said. "To be able to support myself is probably the main reason, no matter what happens."

Bean will begin a master's program at in Massachusetts this fall and hopes to go on to earn her doctorate.