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As she approaches graduation this spring at age 35, Utah Valley University student Nicolle Johnson credits a relationship with a prominent researcher for keeping her on track.

"I had key mentors in my life who have made a difference and pushed me along in healthy and productive ways," said Johnson, a member of a task force that explored why Utah women don't finish college and what to do about it. "It is absolutely imperative that we include mentoring programs, otherwise the minority students are not going to complete at the rates we want them to."

Utah must act to reverse the widening gap between men's and women's rates of college attainment if the state hopes to reach its education goals, according to findings of the Utah Women's College Task Force, presented Tuesday to the Governor's Education Excellence Commission. Recommendations include boosting the state's "college-going culture" by expanding counseling services, buttressing existing initiatives that support women, creating flexible course offerings, and finding new ways to maintain college credits during long gaps in education.

The group's findings are punctuated by a six-percentage-point difference between the portion of Utah men with bachelor's degrees (32 percent) compared to women (26 percent).

"This is a huge problem. This is where we ought to concentrate a lot of resources," Lt. Gov. Greg Bell told commission members gathered in the Capitol. "Utah has a wealth of stranded investment. This is oil in the ground that we can't reach and we need to reach it."

Bell was speaking not only as a policymaker, but a parent. His daughter was on the cusp of graduating from Weber State University with a degree in sociology, but failed to pass a required course in statistics. Now a mother with three kids, she is unlikely to resume school to complete her degree, Bell said.

Utah's six-point college-attainment gap is the nation's largest. Although not directly addressed in the task force findings, Utah's Mormon-dominated culture, which values early motherhood, received ample attention in Tuesday's discussion.

A survey conducted by Susan Madsen, a UVU associate professor of management, showed that the Utah respondents believed a college degree is more important for men than for women. Women start having children younger in Utah than any other state, so colleges should step up efforts to accommodate parents on campus, task force leaders said.

To that end, UVU opened its Women's Success Center and has developed such child-friendly features as the library's family room, a glassed-in area where kids can play while parents study.

"We need to increase the options for those with children," said Madsen, who was Johnson's mentor and whose research helped guide the task force. "Many felt they couldn't do much after that first kid. Going in the evening or online, that wasn't even in their thinking."

While part-time college is the only way to go for most students with children, financial aid is often available only to full-time students, said Commissioner of Higher Education William Sederburg.

"They feel they need to go full-time or not at all," Madsen said. "That's not necessarily the only two choices we should give these moms."

Even women who intend to become future homemakers should consider getting a college degree, said Bonnie Jean Beesley, a Utah state regent who co-chaired the task force with former Gov. Olene Walker. College-educated women have better health, greater rates of civic participation, and at some point likely will wind up in the work force. Nearly three-quarters of mothers with school-age kids have jobs, according to Beesley.

"More educated mothers have more educated daughters and more educated sons," added Madsen, who hired Johnson to help with her Utah Women and Education Project.

Johnson started college right out of high school at Southern Virginia University before back problems interrupted her studies. She resumed her education at UVU a few years ago to study speech communication and business, but found none of her old credits would work toward her degree.

She believes schools must have flexible scheduling, through early-morning, evening, weekend and online offerings, to enable working women to graduate. And the state must convey a message that going to college is worthwhile even for those whose career aspirations are unformed.

"They don't know what they want to do, so they think it's a waste of time," said Johnson, who is aiming for graduate school at Utah State University. "You may not see the whole picture now, but let's start with general education requirements. In the process you will figure out what courses you love and what major you want."

Utah Women's College Task Force

This broad-based group has been studying why Utah women don't complete college at the same rate as men, and how to boost the number. Among the recommendations released Tuesday:

Increase funding for college enrollment growth.

Promote a "college-going culture."

Flexible course scheduling.

Expand college counseling.

More mentoring programs for women.

More support for campus-based initiatives.