Women outnumber men in college attendance, except in Utah

BYU graduates at the Summer 2013 commencement ceremony. Utah is the only state where males outnumber females in college attendance. (Chris Bunker)
BYU graduates at the Summer 2013 commencement ceremony. Utah is the only state where males outnumber females in college attendance. (Chris Bunker)

Analysis of both college enrollment and attendance shows that women outnumber men in college attendance around the country except in Utah.

More women than men attend college

Since 1988, the number of females has exceeded the number of males in post baccalaureate programs. In 1994, 63 percent of recent female high school graduates and 61 percent of recent male high school graduates enrolled in college in the fall semester following graduation. However, by 2012 this number had increased to 71 percent for women and was unchanged for men at 61 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

Scholars have stated that the benefits of a college education for women have increased because labor market barriers are lowering. Other professionals have suggested that boys have more disciplinary and behavioral problems in school, and they are therefore less likely to continue educational pursuits such as college.

Lowering of labor market barriers to women

As labor market barriers to women have been lowered over the years, there is an increased incentive for women to attend college.

“Women have experienced higher returns to education more recently than have men, so the benefits of a college degree are greater for women as a whole than men compared to the past,” said Renata Forste, a professor in BYU’s sociology department.

School doesn’t favor boys’, men’s behavior

“Boys mature differently and develop differently than girls,” said Kristine Hansen, an English professor who has taught a women’s studies class. “And they tend to be more hyper and to act out more in school and get in trouble more and so I’m not sure that primary school and secondary school are set up to favor boys’ maturation styles or their natural developmental arc, the way they mature.”

Hansen said schools tend to favor people who can sit quietly and obediently do tasks. “If schools were engineered to favor a little bit more the ways that boys develop, more boys would be ready for college,” she said. “But as it happens, boys lag behind girls a lot in homework. Studies show girls spend more time on homework, and I think in the last 20 years or so they’ve achieved better test scores and they stay out of trouble more.”

Hansen said boys are more likely to get into trouble, ranging from minor trouble to criminal behavior, and as a result often don’t set their sights on college.

BYU student Tony Bertolino studies with his son during a class break. Students at BYU (Jenna Koford)
BYU student Tony Bertolino studies with his son during a class break. Some students at BYU decide to enroll in classes despite having children, while others put education on hold to raise their families. (Jenna Koford)

Utah doesn’t follow the trend 

The Utah Department of Workforce Services compiled a report regarding women’s education and career opportunities. The report stated, “While prior to 1990, Utah women showed a higher rate of college graduation than the national average, 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.”

According to the report, the percentage has increased slightly since 2000, but is still below the national average.

For BYU’s Fall 2015 semester, 10.35 percent more males than females were enrolled. Fall 2005 saw 5.36 percent more males than females enrolled.

Possible explanations for the difference include more women putting off education to start families and men who are more disciplined because of their service as LDS missionaries.

“The age at first marriage is younger in Utah than nationally and many young women may choose to marry and start a family rather than finish or pursue higher education,” Forste said.

Hansen also believes more women discontinue education to focus on their families. “I think because the church still preaches so much that marriage is important, and of course it should and it is important, and so I think girls in this culture here in Utah hear this message that your role in life is to be a wife and a mother and they set that as their main goal rather than graduation from college,” Hansen said. “So they go to college, but when they find someone to marry, they often drop out.”

Even though this is often the case, more male and female BYU students are choosing to stay in school after having children. Hansen has taught at BYU for about 33 years and has seen shifts in how students handle pregnancy.

“I taught here five years and then left to get a Ph.D. and I noticed when I taught here before I went away the girls almost always dropped out once they got married,” Hansen said. “But when I came back five years later in ’87 and became a faculty member, I noticed more girls would stay after they married and I saw the husbands helping them to make that possible.”

Abbie and Evan Baillargeon with son Windsor. Abbie put education on hold to start a family. (Abbie Baillargeon)
Abbie and Evan Baillargeon with son Windsor. Abbie put education on hold to start a family. (Abbie Baillargeon)

However, some women still choose starting a family over continuing in school. Former UVU student Abegail Baillargeon, from Missouri, put her education on hold to start a family.

“I attended Utah Valley University for a year studying exercise science,” Baillargeon said. “I stopped attending in 2012 so we could add to our family, and I could focus on my husband and not be so stressed and anxiety-filled.”

Baillargeon hasn’t seen any negative impacts from putting education on hold, though she does plan to attend in the future. “I love having a family,” she said. “It’s the biggest blessing in my life and I know that it was the right decision for me and my family.”

While there are more women who put education on hold in Utah, there could also be more men who value secondary education.

“I think we may socialize boys in the LDS culture to believe that they have an obligation to prepare themselves to be breadwinners and fathers and to be responsible at a young age,” Hansen said. “We try to keep them out of mischief and crime so that they can go on missions and so maybe we have a higher percentage of responsible young men who have taken seriously the idea throughout their school that they’ve got to succeed. I do not know that, but it’s possible. I think it’s very likely, in fact.”

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