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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
UVU student Jennifer Dees finds a spot on the floor to read in between classes Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012. The Utah Women and Education Initiative launched Tuesday. Their goal is to educate and promote post-secondary education for women in Utah to help create a college-going culture for women.

SALT LAKE CITY — Education officials want to close the gap between male and female college degree earners in Utah and are hoping the Utah Women and Education Initiative and its newly launched website will provide a path to achievement.

The initiative's director, Mary Ann Holladay, said this step is a continuation of a task force convened by Gov. Gary Herbert in 2011, which looked at the barriers women encounter in pursuing college degrees.

Utah has the worst gender gap in the country for post-secondary degree earners, and officials say closing that gap is key to achieving Herbert's Prosperity 2020 goal of 66 percent of Utah's workforce holding a post-secondary degree or certification by the year 2020.

Currently, Utah is at about 43 percent, and the past few years have seen increases in both college enrollment and completion.

Holladay said the initiative is intended as a central hub to coordinate and promote the efforts of various organizations and volunteer groups that provide services for female students. Ultimately, she said, the goal is to bring greater awareness of the benefits of continued education and match students struggling to complete their degrees with mentoring groups and other campus resources.

"We want to involve as many people across the state as possible," Holladay said. "We want to make sure we're getting the right information out there to the people who can influence a woman's decision to pursue higher education."

According to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, 26 percent of women in the state have at least a bachelor's degree compared to 32 percent of men — a difference of 6 percent. The state with the next largest gender gap is New Jersey, with a disparity of 2.7 percent.

Those numbers are based on 2008 figures, and Susan Madsen, a senior adviser for the initiative and Utah Valley University professor, said recent reports suggest Utah's gender gap may have worsened beyond 6 percent. Madsen said that Utah is not the worst in the county in terms of overall degree attainment, but still comes in below the national average for the total number of women with degrees.

"We're still below the national average so we don't want people to get comfortable," she said.

With the start of a new academic year, the Women and Education Initiative is working with representatives from each college and university in Utah to share resources and ideas and last week launched a website that has information on upcoming events, research and testimonials from women who overcame obstacles to complete their education.

"The website has some great potential to pool and organize resources," Madsen said. "We're really excited to have it up."

Holladay said that beyond the increased earning potential of a college or university graduate, there are a number of benefits to earning a degree. She said research has shown that people who continue their education live healthier lives, have healthier children, feel a greater sense of self-worth and are more socially and civicly engaged.

Madsen said the gender disparity is partly cultural. Because Utahns place families and motherhood in such high regard, many women decide to end their education after getting married. Other women, Madsen said, enroll in a college or university with no real intention of completing their degrees. 

"If they're not thinking of graduating when they start college, it makes sense that they're not graduating," she said.

Encouraging young women to plan and prepare for college is part of the initiative's focus, Madsen said. She said research shows that when individuals aspire to earn a degree from their youth, they are better able to navigate the economic and personal challenges they encounter after high school.

Nicolle Johnson, who works as an administrative assistant at UVU's Women's Success Center, said she knew from a young age that she wanted to earn a college degree. Johnson said she was in her teens when her mother completed her studies and later when Johnson enrolled she encountered challenges of her own.

"It took me about 16 years to finish my bachelors degree, going to school on and off," she said. "Education really is freeing. It builds confidence, it gives you different skills that you don't get through normal life lessons."

Madsen said in addition to the greater understanding of subjects taught in post-secondary schools, the critical thinking and problem solving skills that an individual learns by continuing their education provide a benefit in the home, the community and in nearly every aspect of their lives.

"The better you think, the better you contribute in any way," she said. "Once people understand what college can do for a woman and man, they'll think a little more deeply about getting that degree."

Holladay said that a key component of the Utah Women and Education Initiative is an effort to change traditional attitudes about the necessity of individuals earning degrees in order to be better parents to their children.

"Changing culture and changing awareness is a tremendous challenge," she said. "I think this is just an exciting initiative that we want everyone to be aware of."

Contributing: Karen Sullivan

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com