Utah must harness the power of education for its residents. Securing Utah’s future economic success and high quality of life for its residents rests squarely upon having an educated population. Governor Gary R. Herbert’s “Big Goal” call for 66% of Utahns aged 20-64 to have a postsecondary degree or certificate by the year 2020. He envisions a state even stronger and more vibrant as a result.

Increasing the number of Utah residents completing a postsecondary certificate or degree is a powerful strategy for maximizing the quality of life in Utah. An educated population increases both the social and economic “capital” of the state.

Cultivating an educated population requires creating a college-going culture and assuring that both men and women earn postsecondary certificates and degrees to the maximum extent possible. Yet, statistics from various sources show that the state and its residents should be particularly concerned about the completion rates of Utah women. A report from the Utah Department of Workforce Services stated, “While prior to 1990, Utah women showed a higher rate of college graduation than U.S. women, by 2000, Utah women had lost their ‘bachelor’s degree or higher’ educational edge. Utah shows by far the largest gap in the nation between male and female college-graduation rates”.  The Utah Foundation reports that, although the number of women in Utah with a bachelor’s degree or higher has slightly increased since 2000, percentages are not keeping pace with the nation. This is particularly troubling since Utah men earn bachelor’s degrees or higher at a rate that exceeds the national average.

Figure 1: Percent of Adults (25 and older) with a Bachelor’s Degree or Higher

Finally, Pamela Perlich, Senior Research Economist at the University of Utah’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research stated, “Utah women are slightly less likely to have college degrees than are women in the rest of the nation. This lower overall rate is the result of significantly lower educational attainment of Utah’s younger women…So, while Utah young women start college studies at above average rates, they are less likely to complete their degrees.”  The bottom-line is that this is a trend that Utah cannot afford to see continue – the resulting negative impact on the care of young children and upon the economy of the state will be long-lasting and pervasive.

Both men and women with postsecondary degrees and certificates, whether they participate in the paid workforce or not, are better prepared for roles as community members, homemakers, and caretakers. As noted by Dr. Susan Madsen and colleagues, “A college education is more than a gateway to an affluent lifestyle. Earning a college degree has implications far beyond the workplace.  The non-tangible benefits of receiving a college degree are, at minimum, equivalent to the monetary ones, and they extend from individuals to families and communities.”  Among other benefits, Dr. Madsen cites research that shows the following advantages for college educated women: a healthier lifestyle, increased life satisfaction, better lifelong learning skills, expanded knowledge, enhanced analytic skills, deeper creative thinking, better decision making, increased civic and community engagement, strengthened leadership skills, more developed social skills, heightened self-esteem, and stronger reasoning. These benefits are felt tangibly as women help mold the next generation of Utah children and strengthen our society.

Utah’s men and women rank seventh in the nation for high school graduation rates.  Utah residents also enter college at about the same rate as their national peers, yet Utah women drop out far more frequently than women nationally. Those women who initially choose to serve solely in the roles of wife and homemaker and do not complete baccalaureate degrees forego the many benefits to themselves, their spouses, and their children. For those women who have not completed baccalaureate degrees and must be employed due to economic necessity, too few have the education needed to earn a livable wage. Clearly, Utah must address the non-completion of women if it is to achieve the “Big Goal.”

In-depth research conducted within Utah identifies several reasons why women do not complete postsecondary degrees and certificates. Often, they do not see the correlation between postsecondary educational achievement and benefits to their children and families. Many do not understand that women more often than not are employed in wage-earning positions during certain times of their lives – either by choice or necessity – and that the ability to earn a livable wage can make a significant difference to the quality of life for them and their families. According to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, almost 59% of married Utah women, 74% of Utah’s mothers with school-age children, and about 59% of Utah’s mothers of preschool-age children work outside the home for pay.

The challenge for Utah is to create a college-going culture for Utah women AND men and to lower the barriers to completion. Financial support from the legislature and others will be necessary to meet this challenge. Comprehensive and coherent strategies will lead to Utah having a more educated population – poised to meet the family and employment demands of 2020 and beyond. This new UWEI will provide coordination to efforts in the state (e.g., higher education, public education, government, business, nonprofit) and its citizens in assisting girls and women—and those who influence them—to aspire to, find support for, and attend and complete postsecondary certificates and degrees.

*See full references in the more complete version found in the Task Force Recommendation Report.