Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Utah Women in Education

Yesterday, as part of an article published in the Deseret News about the lagging college graduation rates in Utah being especially prevalent among women (last fall, we briefly discussed a related commentary in one of my classes at Utah Valley University), a photographer came to my class and photographed my students. So far as I can ascertain, no one from Salt Lake Community College was interviewed - certainly I wasn't - but a few photographs of my students and class made it into the slideshow.

It's a problem here in Utah; we're consistently at the bottom when it comes to women graduating from college. I have a theory why this is the case. 

In LDS theology, there are three levels of heaven. My understading is that highest level of heaven is only for Mormons in good standing, allowing them to become gods themselves, have multiple wives and spirit children; however, one must be married, sealed in a Temple, and have children, as well as keep all the church's laws and ordinances . (In Catholicism, there is the belief that not everyone is called to be married; that one can be called to the single life, and that there is as much validity to remaining unmarried as there would be in getting married.)

With such an emphasis on getting married and having children at a young age, many young adults, especially those who come back from a mission, are encouraged to marry and start a family as soon as possible. (This is what I have been told by students who are practicing Mormons, or had been raised in the LDS faith. My knowledge is based on what these students have told me.) This would, of course, put a lot of pressure on a new family with young children, financially and emotionally; when one is in one's early 20s (or younger) with small children, this is not the time to be in college.

I understand the LDS church to be quite supportive of its women members obtaining an education, but religion and conservatism is so pervasive here, so culturally entrenched, that it must be difficult to put one's education last, or at least secondary, to raising a family, if such thinking permeates one's view, if one's thinking is that one won't get into heaven unless one has a family. (This would also lead to, I suspect, a lot of unhappy marriages and acceptance of homosexuality, if such pressure to marry and have children persists.) 

It should be mentioned, of course, that there are more reasons than that one why women don't finish college; Utah isn't, after all, inhabited entirely by Mormons; the religious reasons don't apply to everyone. Other financial factors come in to play, as does student maturity, employment or family issues, or a combination of these or other reasons, regardless of religious affiliation.

My own attitudes, both religious and personal, are so different, that I have a hard time seeing my students struggle with being 10 or more years younger than I, often with multiple children, married as often as not, struggling hard financially, especially with unemployment being what it is. I would much rather see my students wait until they're done with college (if they're young), or at least be more financially stable, before marrying. I don't think college is for everyone; I don't think one needs college to be successful - and I differentiate between college and post-secondary education - but I do think that some manner of post-secondary education needs to be obtained before marrying and having children.

The other caveat, of course, is that at a community college, the student population is much more diverse; one sees students who are middle-aged, who have been working for decades, who have been able to financially support themselves and their families, and are coming to college with a maturity that one doesn't have when one is 20 (no matter how mature a 20-year-old you are). The older students are much more financially solvent. College can help with that solvency, but I would like to see my students in better positions to provide for their children.

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