Story and photo by WHITNEY BUTTERS
Their stories appeared similar to those of many other Utah wives.
In a state where women often marry and have children at a younger age compared to national averages, postponing a college education to raise their families seemed like the natural choice for Debi Gilmore, Heather Spurlock and Shelley Sorensen.
“What happens [in Utah] is you get married, and money is tight. The man is going to work first, so women think, ‘I will drop out of school and work and help him through,’ but the wife doesn’t get back,” Susan Madsen, associate professor at Utah Valley University and director of the Utah Women and Education Project (UWEP), explained.
And that’s where these women’s stories deviate from the norm: Gilmore, Spurlock and Sorensen made it back to school despite economic challenges.
According to the UWEP, a study designed to “understand and then motivate” women to go to college and graduate, the percentage of women in Utah seeking postsecondary education remained higher than the national average until 2001. In recent years, Utah has lagged behind. Nationally, more than 57 percent of those enrolled in college are women; in Utah, only 49 percent of postsecondary students are women. This difference puts Utah in last place among all other states.
Statistics show percentages of Utah women enrolled by age group hover close to national counterparts until about age 22. It is then that Utah’s percentage falls dramatically short.
While the UWEP found most women in the study who had dropped out of college believed they would return to obtain a degree “sometime in the future,” statistics show the majority of these women will never return.
Tuition costs are among the top reasons many women don’t return to school, especially when economic concerns cause more cautionary spending. But the cost doesn’t go unrewarded. Madsen stated many studies indicate college graduates not only have increased earning potential but they are also less likely to be laid off during economic downturn.
Gilmore, a graduate student studying marriage and family therapy at Brigham Young University, recognized the future monetary rewards of completing her degree.
“A woman with a degree becomes more marketable, and to me, every dollar spent on education is worth it and will eventually come back to bless me in the end,” she said.
She hopes the payback will become evident as she sets up a private practice to counsel families on how to deal with dysfunction in the home.
The thought of the end financial result convinced Spurlock, an interpersonal communication student at the University of Utah, to plunge into tuition costs.
“You can’t just think about now,” she said. “You have to think ahead to the long-term benefits.”
Despite the perception of benefits, the UWEP found many women don’t know how to approach the costs or know where to turn for economic and informational resources to help them return to school.
Several choose to pace their return to college with their ability to pay. Sorensen, a business management student at the Uintah Basin extension of Utah State University, takes a few online classes a semester.
“It’s too late in my life to go into debt for school,” she said. “That’s why I’m paying as I go. If down the road I have to slow up a little to do it, then I will.”
However, a wide variety of outside means are available to fund schooling. Some students such as Gilmore apply for scholarships through universities, while others, like Spurlock, apply for student loans.
The UWEP partnered with 2-1-1 Information and Referral to make information about such financial resources readily available to the public. The study provided databases so anyone can dial 2-1-1 for information or visit their website to access higher education resources and explore various alternatives.
While Gilmore, Spurlock and Sorensen pushed through the economic challenges and found ways to return to school, statistics show this is not usually the case. Madsen said going to college right after high school increases a woman’s likelihood of graduating.
Spurlock, however, believes taking the risk of possibly not completing her education was worth the opportunity to raise a family.
“I don’t regret being home at all,” she said. “Nothing else, money included, compared to that.”
Regardless of when it is obtained, Madsen believes education gives women long-lasting rewards.
“Sometimes we just need to do it, and education is one of those things that is just such a huge investment for the future,” she said, “whether the woman decides to work outside the home or not.”