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Gender Gap

Illustrations by David Meikle BFA'94 MFA'06

Closing In on the Gender Gap

by Kelley J.P. Lindberg

Here’s the good news: Nationwide, women have been attending college in larger numbers than men since 1985, and pocketing more college degrees. More than 56 percent of all college students in the United States are women, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. As a result, that well-known earnings gap between the genders, while still large, has been shrinking. The country’s women are increasingly educated, informed, and prepared for a tumultuous world.

Here’s the bad news: Utah, we have a problem.

While the rest of the nation’s college women are outnumbering men, the universities in Utah are lagging behind. Last year at Weber State University, only 48 percent of all daytime students were women. At Utah State and Brigham Young universities, women pulled closer to men, with women making up just over 49.5 percent of full-time undergraduates last year.

But in 2005 at the University of Utah, women made up only 44.5 percent of undergraduates.

Look closer at that glitch in the statistics.

While a few percentage points might seem paltry, consider this: Four and a half percent of the U’s current undergraduate population translates into more than a thousand women. That’s a thousand Utah women who could be better-prepared for the financial and societal hurdles life throws at them.

So, what happened to those thousand women, and what can the University do about them?

Deceptive Numbers

Curiously, women at the U start out neck-and-neck with the men. In fact, the number of young women enrolling as first-time freshmen at the University of Utah in fall 2006 slightly exceeded the number of young men for the first time in years. It’s after that initial enrollment that the numbers begin to drop.

Looking at the raw numbers, it appears that women are dropping out of the University in droves. But numbers, as the saying goes, can be deceiving.

“Over the course of a year, we get more transfer students coming in than first-time students,” explains Paul Brinkman, associate vice president for budget and planning at the U, “and the transfer rate is playing a big part in this.” A disproportionate number of those incoming transfers are men. In the 2005-2006 academic year, 3,656 students transferred into the University of Utah from other colleges. Of those, only 44 percent were women.

Taking that large influx of male transfers into account helps explain why the percentage of attending female freshmen is lower than their initial first-time enrollment rate.

But it doesn’t answer all the questions. Why are fewer women transferring into the University of Utah, and why is the graduation rate of Utah women still trailing the national rate?

“Women are starting college in Utah at higher rates than around the nation, but completing college at lower rates than the nation,” says Pamela Perlich, senior research economist at the Bureau of Economic and Business Research. In Utah, the number of women over 25 who have attained college degrees is about one-half percent below the national rate. Again, one-half percent may seem trifling, but it translates into a significant number of under-prepared women.

Fishing for Answers

Start asking why women’s enrollment is lower here and you quickly find yourself floundering in murky waters. Everyone seems aware of the problem, but research into finding explanations (and solutions) is just starting, and theories are numerous, complex, and often contradictory.

“Definitely some cultural issues contribute to the problem,” says Barb Snyder, the U’s vice president of student affairs. Because Utah boasts both the highest fertility rate and the largest average household size in the nation, the financial and time pressures on families are significant. According to Snyder, for many Utah families, the larger family size means that “there is less family support for college expenses than in other places.”

Another factor, she says, is that “our debt aversion is higher in this state.” Utah’s average amount owed on student loans per student is lower than in any other state. Although the research is sketchy, anecdotal evidence suggests most Utahns prefer to “save up” for college rather than take out a loan. But as potential students marry and begin building families, money for college takes a back seat and may never materialize.

"Women are starting college in Utah at higher rates
than around the nation, but completing college
at lower rates than the nation."

Add to that a perception among college students—current and potential, male and female alike—that tuition is just too high. The reality, however, is that the U’s tuition rates are among the lowest in the nation for an education at a top-notch state school. And although tuition rates have certainly climbed in recent years (an increase of about nine percent at the U in 2006), a culture of debt-averse students views any increase as a direct and substantial hit to the pocketbook.

Combining this debt aversion with Utah’s propensity for beginning families earlier means college-age women are often faced with an “either/or” decision. As Perlich explains, “College education is a huge investment, but so is having a child. If I decide having children [before I graduate from college] is more important than the 50 grand a college education costs, I may never get back to it.” And if both parents are students, the financial responsibility for putting the spouse through college usually falls on the wife.

For women who have children while still in college, child care is an additional burden. The University’s on-campus child-care services are in high demand and have long waiting lists, and in some cases have other preferences for enrollment, such as association with a specific department.

Another reason more men are enrolled at the University of Utah may be the degree programs offered. Two of the largest degree programs among the many offered at the U are business and engineering, both of which have a testosterone-heavy tradition that attracts a much larger number of men than women. These programs also account for a lion’s share of incoming transfers, bringing more men into the schools than women.

Liz Tashjian, associate professor of finance and chair of the U of U’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, speculates that the U’s sheer size and commuter-campus atmosphere may also play a role in deterring some female students. “The U is not an easy place to make friends. We have 22,000 undergraduates, and they struggle to find people like themselves,” she says. “Large classes are more detrimental to young women than young men. Men get discouraged less easily and have stronger self-esteem.”

A robust job market also contributes to a declining enrollment rate for both men and women. With Utah’s current strong economy, many jobs are available that don’t require a college education, and the lure of a paycheck is hard to resist. A $10 to $15 per hour job as a bank teller or a machinist can be powerfully attractive to a high school senior. Says Richard Kendell MEd’70 PhD’73, commissioner for the Utah System of Higher Education, “They get drawn to it and get dependent on it, but it’s not nearly the amount they could make with a college degree.”

Finally, the cultural issues Snyder referred to may include Utah residents’ attitudes about higher education for women in general. In a May 2006 survey conducted by Dan Jones & Associates for the Utah System of Higher Education, 92 percent of respondents thought a four-year degree was “important” for females, but only 68 percent thought it was “very important.” On the other hand, 74 percent thought it was “very important” for males. When asked what the minimum level of education should be, 61 percent thought all men should have at least a four-year degree. Only 44 percent thought all women should have one.

Divorce Rates and Single Moms

Newspaper headlines declare that Utah’s economy is booming, and “Now Hiring” signs regularly appear in store windows. If the job market is rosy, is it really a concern that some women are missing out on a college education?

It should be if those women expect to earn enough to support a family. “The divorce rate in Utah is right at the national average [of 50 percent],” says Tashjian. “I fear for my students.”

“Given the divorce rate,” agrees Snyder, “there is a great likelihood that women with young children will be in the workforce at some time. Many will be single moms, and they will be responsible for supporting their families.”

Even if women don’t find themselves keeping a family afloat single-handedly, a significant number of Utah women enter the workforce at some point anyway, whether it’s to add to the family’s financial stability, to fulfill dreams, or any of the other myriad reasons why 60 percent of women in Utah work outside the home. And if women are going to work, they should be prepared for jobs that are more lucrative. “Getting your college education early and completing it early is the best way to ensure financial stability for the rest of your life,” says Snyder.

According to Kendell, “Over a lifetime, there can be more than a million dollars in earnings between a high school graduate and someone with a college degree.” The average annual income for a Utah adult with a high school diploma is only $22,437. For a Utah adult with a two-year associate degree, the average annual income rises to $30,356. For those with a four-year bachelor of science degree, it’s $45,776. That’s double the annual salary of someone with only a high school diploma.

“With a [university] degree,” Kendell continues, “you have access to better health care, far fewer incidents of public assistance, and lower unemployment rates.”

The lack of a college education doesn’t just hamper individual women and their families. It also weakens the state of Utah in both direct and unexpected ways. “If you look at the lifetime earnings of college graduates and their contributions to the tax coffers of the state, it’s significantly different,” says Kendell.

If the loss of tax money isn’t enough to grab the attention of policy makers and residents, there are other effects of an under-educated population that may. High-tech companies seek out highly educated populations when investigating new locations.

Even retail stores are savvy of educational levels and often consider them indispensable to their marketing strategies.

When Cheesecake Factory and Crate & Barrel were exploring opportunities at The Gateway in downtown Salt Lake City, no one expected that Utah’s capital wouldn’t be able to meet their business plan requirements. But both companies prefer 34 percent of the local population to have a college degree, and Salt Lake City weighed in with only 27 percent. So both stores went looking elsewhere. “It’s pretty simple,” says Kendell. “They want to put a store where people make more money. And college graduates make more money.”

Tracking and Attracting Women

University and state leaders are trying many different tactics on many different levels to attract more women into Utah universities and keep them there until they graduate. Programs such as the state’s MESA (Math, Engineering and Science Achievement) initiative and a new campaign by the Utah System of Higher Education target junior high and high school girls in an effort to channel them into college and groom them for roles in a high-tech workforce.

In addition, says Kendell, “The state needs to provide more need-based aid so students can get more scholarships or grants. We have asked the Legislature for money to expedite taking classes and to get more counseling in colleges.”

Bridging the GapBecause Utah currently can track only raw numbers of students every year, it’s nearly impossible to ferret out what is really happening to the college-age women in Utah. According to Kendell, with a new Utah System of Higher Education project called Student Tracker that is currently being developed, “We will be able to identify each student by a clear identification number (not their Social Security number). Then we can track those students all the way through college.” This will allow policy makers and academic leaders to confront specific problems rather than anecdotal evidence.

At the University of Utah, several different groups and offices are looking for ways to augment the enrollment of women. One example is with child care. “We are working aggressively in the area of affordable child care,” says Snyder. “We’re looking to double the size of on-campus child care over the next year.”

Another example is the U’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. The commission’s goal, says Tashjian, is to find “a few things that we can do to bring additional young women to the University of Utah. Where are we not reaching out, or not creating a hospitable environment?” The group will be involved in surveys and focus groups, as well as talking to high school guidance counselors.

Individual schools at the U are also looking at their enrollment numbers and finding ways to address disparities. “The nursing and law schools are aggressively seeking diversity,” Tashjian notes.

At the U’s School of Computing, where only 20 of the 220 computer science undergraduates this year are women, Assistant Professor Juliana Freire has been charged with finding ways to make the U’s computer science program more attractive to women. According to Freire, the school has joined the National Center for Women in Technology, an organization that provides information and resources to departments to help attract more women.

Freire also belongs to a group called Women @ CS within the School of Computing whose mission is to develop and promote a local community of women in computer science by increasing the availability of resources, mentors, and social activities. Other department and faculty efforts to reach out to women include holding a mini summer camp for girls, sending professors and graduate students to speak at high schools, and creating new “women-friendly” courses that emphasize problem solving and computational thinking in addition to programming. “We are also starting a new distinguished lecture series for women in technology,” Freire adds. The lectures will expose women at the University and in the Salt Lake community to successful women in the high-tech field.

The School of Computing’s drive to attract women is only one example of how seriously the University of Utah is trying to reach those thousand missing women. As Tashjian puts it, “We have a high participation of women in the workforce here. We have a societal obligation to prepare the next generation.”

Whether they know it or not, future women students have champions in many corners of the U and the Utah Higher Education System who are looking for ways to reach out, find, and prepare them for a brighter future. As these efforts snowball, those thousand women (and more), like their sisters nationwide, will have the opportunity to become better educated, informed, and prepared.

—Kelley J. P. Lindberg BS’84 is a Layton-based freelance writer.

Open Access

One way the University of Utah is bridging the gender gap in mathematic and scientific fields is through the College of Science’s ACCESS Scholarship Program. Each year, approximately 21 highly qualified women get the unique opportunity to explore the major sciences through team projects and laboratory work. After choosing a field, each student is paired with a professor of her choice to work as a research assistant.

Nicole Mihalopoulos
Nicole Mihalopoulos

“I’m amazed at the stories the students tell me about being dissuaded from going into science,” says Rosemary Gray, associate professor of biology, and the current director of the program. “These students are enthusiastic about learning and have accomplished so much before, during, and after the program.”

In addition to the hands-on experience with celebrated mentors and a $3,500 stipend, the students also benefit from the community of like-minded peers. For ACCESS alumna Nicole Mihalopoulos, the supportive network gave her a sense of belonging.

Now, as assistant professor of pediatrics at the U, she’s still good friends with some of her program mates and also mentors new ACCESS Scholarship participants.

“I have this ‘pay it forward’’ mentality because I was helped by many generous people,” she says. “It’s important to nurture and mentor young women interested in math and science.”

For more information on the ACCESS Scholarship Program visit

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