Exploring the Gender Gap in Higher Education

Although slightly more women are entering college and earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees on a national level, that does not seem to be the case in Utah.

Utah State University (USU) in partnership with the USU Utah Women & Leadership Project investigated the challenges that Utah women face in higher education and how to better assist them achieve graduation and address inequities, including the gender wage gap.

New data show that slightly more women than men are earning bachelor’s degrees in Utah (23.4% vs. 22.6%), but there is a more significant gap between women and men earning advanced degrees in Utah (9.3% of women vs. 14.1% men). National statistics show slightly more women than men (13% vs. 12.4%) earn advanced degrees in sharp contrast to Utah’s percentages.

The study uncovered issues women face that are unique to Utah:

  • 25% of undergraduate women and 50% of graduate study women are married
  • 20% have at least one child
  • More than 20% are employed full-time
  • Almost 50% are employed part-time
  • Women in graduate programs were older and more racially and religiously diverse than women in undergraduate programs

When asked why they went to college, respondents reported:

  • 30% wanted to learn new skills for a desired job
  • 25% felt an undergraduate degree was necessary regardless of their career or life goals
  • 17% chose college to increase potential earnings

To understand women’s educational goals, the women were asked if they planned to go to graduate school. Almost half of them said they were considering it. “This result is somewhat surprising, given that Utah is the state with the largest gender gap in advanced education among all states,” said Sojung Lim, Associate Professor of Sociology at USU and Chief Researcher on the study. “It suggests that challenges and circumstances, not ambition and desire, are influencing this gap.”

Other findings:

Women in graduate programs were more likely to be married and have at least one child. Graduate students were more likely to hold regular, full-time jobs than undergraduates. Also, the percentage of women who rated their health positively was higher among graduate students than undergraduates.

Undergraduate women with clear career goals are aware of the benefits of graduate degrees to their career and financial goals. Those with unclear career goals and strong family orientations are less interested in graduate school. Many undergraduates have not considered graduate school because of the cost and time commitment. These women may not be aware of the financial support that is available for advanced study. Another challenge for women is managing family responsibilities along with their education.

A final challenge was women not fully understanding their career goals and pathways. Those who were less interested in attending graduate school, often lacked knowledge about potential benefits and the return on their investment.

“Through this research, we realized the importance of raising awareness and addressing barriers early during secondary and undergraduate education so more women consider and plan to pursue advanced degrees,” Lim said. “Institutions of higher education, government agencies, businesses, and individuals can innovate ways of supporting women in higher education, both financially and emotionally, so more women complete advanced degrees. Taking steps will not only mitigate gender disparity in advanced education in Utah but will move the needle in other areas of gender inequity in the state, including the gender gap.”