Task force hopes to raise college graduation rates for women

It’s a common route at BYU — young women come to school, get married and start a family, sometimes dropping out of college to focus on their children and support their husbands’ endeavors.

Because of this rising tendency — not only at BYU, but at colleges throughout Utah — female graduation rates are declining.

In 2009, Utah women’s graduation rates were 6 percent below the rate of Utah men, and 2 percent below the national average of women.

The Utah System of Higher Education issued a study in 2008 which found that many Utahns believe men should have more education than women: 49 percent of Utah residents thought men should at least receive  a four-year degree, while only 39 percent believed women should receive at least a four-year degree.

These statistics, along with the rising percentage of female college dropouts, concerns political leaders.

Last September, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert created the “Women’s College Task Force” — a committee that aims to raise the educational aspirations of women in Utah.

Co-chaired by former Utah Gov. Olene Walker, the committee consists of business, educational, religious and political leaders all poised to increase the Utah community’s knowledge of the issue.

To advertise the task force, Walker recently released an article discussing the statistics and reasoning why Utah females should aspire for higher education.

In her report featured in the Salt Lake Tribune, Walker stated: “We know that often women eventually enter the workforce, but even for those who are full-time homemakers, other statistics show that women with higher education tend to: give birth to healthier babies, have children who are healthier, be more confident, resilient and have improved reasoning and judgment, get more involved in the community and be involved in the political process, and are more likely to have children that are college graduates, among other benefits. Education is about more than making money.”

In 2008, roughly 33.5 percent of U.S. women ages 25-plus had a bachelor’s degree, while about 27.5 percent of Utah women held a bachelor’s degree.

Whitney Tonkinson, a BYU biology education major from Mentor, Ohio, who married over the summer, can see the tough decisions some college women would have to make if presented with the choice between children and education.

“Even though I’m married, I’m determined to complete my degree simply because I want to be able to support my family if for some reason something happened where I would need to be the primary provider,” Tonkinson said. “I can also understand why women who start families while in college drop out — school’s enough work as it is without being responsible for a little one.”

Tonkinson continued, saying she doesn’t disrespect those mothers who drop out of school to be with their children.

“I think sometimes we tend to view this situation in a very negative way, and we shouldn’t,” Tonkinson said. “It’s ultimately that woman and that family’s choice and we shouldn’t look down on their decision either way.”

Localizing to BYU, numbers gathered from BYU’s Y Facts show that from 2005-2010, the percent of students enrolled differed between sexes: Roughly, males average 45.1 percent of enrollees, while females average 54.8 percent of enrollees. Come graduation time, though, the number of male and female graduates yields 50 percent for each — the males up their percent, while the females drop.

In fall of 2010, Stephen Cranney, a BYU graduate with a bachelor’s in political science, and a minor in sociology, reported on the growing gap between BYU males and females concerning education.

Titling the report “Do Female BYU Students Have Lower Educational Ambition Than Their Male Counterparts? Results from a Recent Study,” Cranney discussed the lack of appeal that education holds for female college students. He presented statistics and information that he dubbed a “wake-up call” for the BYU audience.

“The underlying motivation for doing such research was to point out what I see as a problem within the culture,” Cranney said. “To be frank, I don’t see the differential salary expectations being as much of a problem as the differential education expectations.”

Cranney said he’d love to see a clearer combination of the mandate to have a family with the mandate to learn.

Concerning the automatic attribution of Utah characteristics to Mormonism,  Cranney explained the misunderstanding.

“This is an ecological fallacy that often doesn’t pan out when the data is examined more closely,” Cranney said. “So it’s  really difficult to say based on the data. However, some of these trends do seem to be mirrored in the BYU population, suggesting that Mormon culture could be a factor.”

Cranney is currently enrolled in the joint Sociology/Demography Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Valerie Hudson, a political science professor at BYU who was ranked 97th in 2009’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers” and authored the book “Bare Branches,” said the low graduation rates among females in Utah is a by-product of LDS culture which isn’t in accordance with LDS teachings. She quotes Elder Dallin H. Oaks’ “Women and Education,” a 1975 Ensign article:

“One of the most important purposes of a university education is to prepare men and women to be responsible and intelligent leaders and participants in the lives of their families, in their Church, and in their communities,” Oaks said. “That kind of education is needed by young men and young women alike. In short, we make no distinction between young men and young women in our conviction about the importance of an education and in our commitment to providing that education.”

According to Hudson, the LDS culture has diminished these teachings, and forces the belief that the choice in an LDS female’s future lies between pursuing marriage and family or pursuing further education.

Hudson, holder of a Ph.D. and mother of eight children, gave an example concerning a “highly intelligent female” in one of her classes. The student began to feel the prompting to continue her education and obtain a master’s degree in her field. When the student visited home during the Thanksgiving holiday and told her family her intentions, her family only had negative reactions. Her grandmother said, “Well, I guess we won’t see any grandchildren from you, will we?”

Hudson said the pressure put on young women to raise a family versus pursuing their education is unconscionable, and this is foundation to the low graduation rates of women from post-secondary educational programs in Utah.

“Education should not be Plan B for women any more than it is for young men,” Hudson said. “It’s time to wake up and recognize that women’s lives are no longer either/or propositions, where there is no way to combine a desire for family with a desire for education.  It’s high time we uprooted those noxious cultural weeds from among our people on this score–it’s time we followed our Church leaders, and not the culture we have inherited.”

Alex Hoeft

Alex Hoeft is a print journalism major, minoring in both editing and computers and the humanities. Currently a web editor for The Universe, she one day hopes to work in the sports media industry.

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