Utah Women and Education Project researchers conducted in-depth research in 2010 to discover why more young women around the state are not attending and graduating from college. Findings suggest that religion, values, and overall culture do influence the decisions young women in Utah are making about attending college. Approximately 80.5% of the participants in this study were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), 13% had no religious preference, and 6.5% reported belonging to other religions. Because we received very little qualitative data from non-LDS participants, most of the results in this snapshot focus on findings from women in the LDS church.
The following three open-ended questions proved to be central in determining religion’s impact on participants:
- What does your religion teach you about continuing your education after high school? Approximately 73.5% of the sample stated that their religion taught them that higher education is very important (55.1%) or moderately important (18.4%).
- What messages do you think are given from your top church leaders (e.g., Pope, Prophet) about women earning college degrees? 71% said that their top church leaders encouraged them to attend college.
- Do your local church leaders (e.g., youth leaders, minister, bishop, rabbi) talk to you about your education? If so, what do you think they are encouraging you to do with your educational and career choices? Although results are not as striking as the findings from the first two questions, the majority of young women in this sample did say that they were being encouraged (20.4%) or strongly encouraged (33.5%) to get a college education. It was primarily the less active LDS or non-religious participants who said local church leaders did not encourage them to attend college or even discuss the subject.
Participants who were most likely to prepare for, attend, and graduate from college believed that a woman’s college education is strongly encouraged by all three religious variables: 1) teachings of the LDS church, 2) top LDS leaders, and 3) local LDS leaders. However, of these three the most powerful statistical predictor of college preparation activities and decisions is encouragement from local church leaders—primarily LDS bishops and Young Women leaders. Young women who had group and one-on-one encouragement from at least one of their local leaders were significantly more likely to attend and graduate from college.
Here are what a few of our participants said:
- “I am LDS and my religion really advocates continuing your education after high school. Even though we are encouraged to get married and start a family, the importance of getting a college education is also emphasized.” [current college student]
- “My religion (LDS) is very proactive on college and continuing education. We do biannual church-wide conferences and many of the talks are about education and the importance of it for men and women. They push learning all of the time!” [current college student]
- “My religion teaches education is not merely a good idea; it’s a commandment…They encourage getting education but do not expect us to get a degree.” [college dropout]
There was an apparent disconnect between the importance participants said they place on getting an education to “be prepared” or to “have a job to fall back on” before marriage and then their ultimate decision not to attend and/or finish college. Education is the top priority for many until marriage, and then priorities quickly change. Some participants struggled with understanding why there is so much emphasis placed on education before marriage and then why they “must give it up” after they are married. Other findings include the following:
- LDS participants generally believe that learning, knowledge, and higher education are important. They believe their religion supports women attending college, but many do not feel they need to graduate.
- Many LDS women do not see the urgency in obtaining their college degrees; they believe that finishing them “someday” is fine.
- Many LDS women cannot envision a life of integration. They cannot imagine being simultaneously married, having children, and continuing college (even one class at a time). Some believe that women need to “give up” or “sacrifice” college for their husbands/families. Several participants said it was their “duty” to drop out of school.
- In the minds of many LDS participants, “going to college” gets lumped into the same category as “going to work.” If they believe they should not work, they also believe they should not attend college.
- Marriage or the birth of the first child is the end of college for many young women.
Here are a few things you can do to encourage better educational participation and completion for the girls and women you influence.
- Help local church leaders understand that they play a particularly important role in encouraging young women to attend and graduate from college.
- Take time to ask young women questions about their college plans. Share your positive college experiences and talk about the challenges and how you dealt with them. Discuss the broad value of a college education.
- Make efforts with young women, one-on-one and in group settings, to discuss how they can integrate marriage, family, and college.
- Present realistic data (e.g., need for life preparation, divorce rates, economic challenges) in church settings so that young women will more fully understand the importance of family and completing degrees.
- Talk to young women about the urgency and importance of attending college right after high school; help them feel the urgency of obtaining degrees rather than thinking it is okay for them to graduate “someday.”
- Help all youth and young adults understand that graduating from college is critical today for both women and men. Getting a degree is just as important after marriage as it is before.