SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's higher education gender gap may be shrinking, but the state lags behind the rest of the country in degree attainment, according to two studies released Tuesday by the Utah Women and Education Initiative.
Data were collected to examine the state's progress toward its goal of 66 percent of Utah adults holding a post-secondary degree or certificate by the year 2020. Currently, 43 percent of the state's adult workforce have a degree or certificate.
In a pair of research and policy briefs, officials with the Utah Women and Education Initiative suggest that college enrollment in the state has increased in the past decade but has failed to keep up with the state's overall population growth.
According to the data, Utah has one of the largest gender gaps for degree earners in the country, and one of the highest percentages of adults who failed to complete their college or university degree. In Utah, 27 percent of adults, mostly women, fall into the "some college, no degree" category, compared with the national average of 20.6 percent.
"We still have that gap even though the younger generation is changing," said Susan Madsen, senior adviser to the Utah Women and Education Initiative.
Currently, enrollment at Utah's colleges and universities is evenly split between male and female students, and women are more successful at completing their programs. But both genders fall behind the national average by more than nine percentage points in terms of graduation, according to the data. Those numbers also do not take into account the number of women who do not pursue a bachelor's degree after completing an associate degree.
Women receive 55 percent of Utah's associate degrees, according to the Utah Women and Education Initiative, but only 47 percent of bachelor's degrees — the lowest percentage of all 50 states.
"That's great that we're doing well there," Madsen said of the flipped gender gap in two-year programs, "but they're not continuing."
Female attrition in higher education is a key focus of the Utah Women and Education Initiative. Officials say women in the state are often put in a situation where they feel pressured to choose between continuing and completing their education or beginning a family and supporting their children.
“Women clearly face unique challenges in balancing families, jobs and education, and this is what we are working to address,” Mary Ann Holladay, director of the Utah Women and Education Initiative, said in a prepared statement.
According to the researchers, in order to meet the state's goals for the year 2020 it is necessary for the state to implement strategies encouraging high school graduates to attend college directly after high school, encouraging more men and women to enroll in and graduate from college and also encouraging older adults to return to school and complete their education.
In response to the recommendation that students begin college directly after high school graduation, Madsen said she is unsure what effect the recent changes to LDS Church missionary age requirements will have on enrollment in Utah. But she said the recommendation is more in response to students who postpone their education for employment after high school and then lose their educational momentum and never return to school.
"I think going straight to a mission and straight back to college, there's still momentum there," she said. "For women, I think that year between high school and the mission is going to be critical."