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Orem • When Sam Rushforth became dean of Utah Valley University's College of Science and Health, the college's graduation ceremony was short and sweet.

"We were giving out associate's degrees, and we had 45 walk," Rushforth told more than 200 UVU graduates at the college's individual convocation Friday morning. And, he said the first master's degrees from the college will be awarded next year.

Rushforth's students are part of the largest graduating class in UVU's 70-year history. The university awarded degrees to 4,325 graduates during campus ceremonies Friday where Robert C. Gay, co-founder and CEO of Huntsman Gay Global Capital and a microfinance philanthropist, was the keynote speaker.

While the 156 women graduates in the health and science convocation represented more than a quarter of the 433 degrees awarded by the college, women received most of the outstanding student awards — 15 of 23.

"We really have a brilliant group of students," Rushforth said of the award winners.

One them is Anna Metcalf, who earned a bachelor's in chemistry while maintaining a 3.98 grade-point average. Metcalf, 32, started at UVU in 2008, after spending 12 years in dental sales.

"When I decided to go back to school, I wondered what to take, and I always liked science and math and that stuff," she said.

She said there were quite a few women in the entry-level classes, but as she advanced to the upper-division chemistry classes, she was in a clear minority.

UVU serves many non-traditional students like Metcalf. But she represents an issue with which UVU wrestles: Only 45 percent of the graduating class is female, a trend that runs counter to the nation as a whole. Nationally, more women than men have earned bachelor's degrees since 1996, and the gap has widened since. Census figures released this year now show women are earning more master's degrees, too.

Susan Madsen, a UVU business professor who headed up UVU's Women and Education Project, said her research determined that young women in Utah seem to understand the importance of going to college, but not the significance of earning the degree.

She said there are numerous reasons women don't finish. Some do not realize they can balance school with family life, such as attending part-time or taking evening classes while their husbands watch the kids. Or they believe that being a parent means staying home from work and school to tend children.

But Madsen said there are ways to counteract the trend. One is to introduce youth — both boys and girls — to the idea of getting a college education long before the time they have to fill out admissions forms.

And, it helps to explain the benefits of a college education, but not just from the standpoint of a job. For example, she said college graduates are more likely to be engaged in their communities than those who don't finish.

Danny Horns, associate dean at UVU's science and health college, said the university is reaching out to women, and he believes the outstanding student awards show that.

"Every year, our 'Expand Your Horizons' programs brings girls to campus to get them interested in science," Horns said.

He said women who take science classes are also highly motivated, as shown by the academic honors they earned.

Metcalf said she plans to go to graduate school, but might take a year off first.

Twitter: @donaldwmeyers