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Utah is a national leader in many areas of higher education, from award-winning faculty to cutting-edge research. However, college completion among women in Utah is well below that of men here and nationwide. As Utah's first female governor, I wholeheartedly believe that, more than ever, now is the time to encourage Utah's women to not only go to college, but also finish.

This past August, Gov. Gary Herbert created the Utah Women's College Task Force and appointed me as co-chair, along with State Board of Regents vice-chair Bonnie Jean Beesley, to help raise the educational aspirations of Utah's female population.

As of 2009, women's graduation rates are still more than six percentage points lower than their male counterparts (25.5 percent for Utah women versus 31.6 percent for Utah men) and two percentage points less than their national peers. The Utah Women and Education Project (2009-2011) found that this Utah trend is linked to the attitudes and aspirations of young women, as Utah experiences high marriage and pregnancy rates among college-age students.

The young women in our state recognize the important benefits of higher education for someone intending to enter the workforce, but they don't realize other significant benefits for individuals, families and communities when women who are homemakers and mothers complete a higher education credential. We need to do better than this. We need to ensure that Utah's females are earning post-secondary degrees.

A recent survey conducted by the Cicero Group of Salt Lake City measured 1,200 Utah adults on their general thoughts about the value of higher education. Many of those individuals said higher education was extremely important; 65 percent agreed that education positively contributed to their "happiness with life"; 60 percent agreed that education contributed to their "effectiveness as a parent." And more than half said that education contributed to their "current compensation."

In fact, there are a number of figures that illustrate the benefits of higher education, including census data that show Utahns with a college degree earn, over the course of their lifetime, more than twice that of someone with a high school degree. Parents recognize the importance of higher education, but may not realize that it's never too early for encouraging and preparing their children for college, and also utilizing valuable resources like school counselors, who are critical to facilitating the transition from high school to college.

Utah experiences high marriage and pregnancy rates among college-age students and, unfortunately, we see that too many young women are dropping out of college. We know that often women eventually enter the workforce, but even for those who are full-time homemakers, other statistics show that women with higher education (especially a baccalaureate degree or higher) tend to: Give birth to healthier babies, have children who are healthier, be more confident, resilient and have improved reasoning and judgment, get more involved in the community and be involved in the political process, and are more likely to have children that are college graduates, among other benefits. Education is about more than making money.

I am proud to co-chair the Women's College Task Force to work on this issue. Other members of the 24-person task force include business, educational and religious leaders, as well as several elected officials and non-profit advocates. I'm hopeful the task force will strengthen the understanding among Utahns that going to college and also completing a credential is important to being a good parent.

I have seen our great state flourish, and have always advocated for the education of our young people. But now is the time for everyone to realize that we can and should do better in helping young women graduate from college.

Olene Walker was governor of Utah from 2003 to 2005.