LOGAN, Utah — When Kelsy Schneiter graduated from Utah State University in 2005, she planned to take her hard-earned degree in elementary education and teach to put her husband through school.
After working for a year, however, Schneiter said she wasn't happy and made the difficult decision to go back to USU for a master's degree.
Schneiter, 29, is one of an elite group of Utah women who have obtained a graduate degree. Research conducted by the American Community Survey shows that women in Utah in all age ranges are much less likely than men to have a master's degree.
In fact, women in Utah are less likely than men to have any degree other than an associate's. While women enroll in college at the same rate, or slightly above, the national average, they are far less likely than their national peers to graduate.
And if they enroll, women are much more likely to be found in certificate trade programs, including cosmetology, massage and culinary arts, than in four-year degree programs, according to research by Susan Madsen, a researcher at Utah Valley University who herself holds a Ph.D.
Women in Utah also graduate from business, science, technology, engineering and math programs at rates substantially below the national average, according to the same research.
Mary Ann Holladay, Utah Women and Education Initiative (UWEI) director, thinks this may be because of long-held stereotypes.
"We still, as a society, have a lot of mental models about women in traditional roles," she said. "We need to work harder to change those mental models."
Currently, Utah has a 6 percent gap between men and women over the age of 25 with bachelor's degrees — the largest gap in the nation. The percentage of bachelor's degrees awarded to women in Utah (47 percent) is also the lowest of all 50 states, according to research done by UWEI last year.
The high female college dropout rate hasn't always been the norm in Utah. According to "Women and Higher Education in Utah: A Glimpse at the Past and Present," Utah has been above the national average in the percentage of adults holding bachelor's degrees or higher since 1940, and the percentage of women attaining these degrees was also higher than average.
Female enrollment began slipping in 1993 and by 2001 had fallen below the national average. The number of women holding degrees has steadily increased but has not kept up with the increase in population.
Cache County has the fourth highest rate of adults with bachelor's degrees in the state, according to 2010 Census data, at 23 percent. Women in Cache County are also slightly more likely to have a bachelor's degree than men (24 percent compared to 21 percent). Important to note, however, is that this information takes into account adults of all ages — and college dropout rates will continue to have a downward pull on these rates as the older generation is replaced.
So why have women steadily abandoned their degree pursuit since 1993?
Ann Austin, director of the Center for Women and Gender at USU, said while there are many theories, she believes it has to do with Utah's culture, which is influenced by its large percentage of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Men and women get married at younger ages in Utah than in other parts of the country, Austin said, and tend to have children shortly thereafter. Some women feel that there is an expectation, she said, to drop out of college to either be a homemaker or go to work to put their husbands through school.
Austin also personally wonders if a talk given by LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer in 1993 may have led to decreasing graduation rates. The talk identified the three greatest threats to the LDS Church as "the gay-lesbian movement," ''the feminist movement," and "so-called scholars or intellectuals."
"I do wonder if that (talk) has had kind of a chilling effect," Austin said. "I think it's a misunderstanding and a misinterpretation, by many people, of what the LDS Church stands for."
Becky Johnston, a USU graduate living in Centerville, interprets LDS Church teachings differently.
Johnston received a bachelor's degree in 1998 and a master's degree in 2004, both from USU. She also earned her Ph.D. As an LDS woman, Johnston said she continued her education because of, not in spite of, the church's teachings. Johnston now has five children, and had two of them while working on her graduate degrees.
"A lot of people think you can't get a degree and have kids," Johnston said, "but everything I hear over the pulpit is, 'Get an education.'"
Many women drop out because they were financially unprepared for school and either couldn't afford tuition or couldn't manage the stress of being a student and working full-time, Austin said.
Schneiter, who now lives in Texas, managed to stay in school, but said that getting her master's degree was "exhausting."
"I pulled a lot of all-nighters," she said.
While she and her husband both attended USU, Schneiter worked as a school teacher, attending her own classes at night. They survived off of student loans, living with Schneiter's sister because they couldn't afford to pay rent.
Holladay said people are much more likely to graduate from college if they attend without interruption.
In Utah, education is often put on hold while women take time off to go on missions, get married, or start families, she said.
"There's a lot of compartmentalization, particularly for women," Holladay said. "It's hard to think about doing multiple things at once."
The good economy is another contributing factor, she said. Not all jobs require degrees, so many people stop going to school to join the workforce and never return.
To these women, Holladay advised, "Don't put (education) off because you think it will be easier in a few years, because it never is."
These low graduation rates of women in the state don't bode well for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's "big plan" for education: to have 66 percent of Utahns between the ages of 25 and 64 hold a postsecondary certificate or degree by the year 2020 in order to meet projected workforce demands. 2010 Census data estimated that only 43 percent of Utahns in this age range had postsecondary credentials.
As part of working toward this goal, special attention has been directed to the retention of women.
UWEI, which was launched in 2012, uses its website, www.utahwomenandeducation.org, to increase awareness and provide information and resources for what Holladay calls young women's "influencers:" parents, teachers, older female relatives and church and community leaders.
"We all have influence over women who can benefit from higher education," Holladay said. "We often underestimate the power we have. We all need to engage with the women in our life about the importance of education."
UWEI has published a list of six major benefits of a college education: increased health and well-being, increased civic and community engagement, better parenting skills, better self-development skills, more intellectual and cognitive development, and favorable societal and economic outcomes.
Johnston said having advanced degrees has definitely helped her be a better parent, and that's one reason she pursued them.
"If I want to raise children and be good at that, there is data that shows that education will give me better outcomes."
Austin said all six of UWEI's listed benefits can be attributed to empowerment.
"We can't discount the sense of empowerment that education brings," she said.
She then referenced Doctrine and Covenants 93: 36, which reads in part: "The glory of God is intelligence..."
"(Why) intelligence?" she continued, "Because it's empowering!"
Information from: The Herald Journal, http://www.hjnews.com