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The gap between men and women attaining four-year degrees in Utah has grown to6 percent: A disparity that separates the Beehive State from the rest of the U.S.

Since the 1990s, post-secondary education enrollment figures for Utah women have steadily declined—a trend that's resulted in Utah ranking 26th in the nation for higher education completion by women.

These and other statistics were presented to educators, community activists and women from across the state Tuesday in Salt Lake City at the United Way's Women and Education Summit. The conference opened with keynote speeches from a data expert and from a local education advocate who set the tone for the event by communicating a problem: women in Utah are struggling to get college degrees.

Keynote speaker Mary Daly, the associate director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, began the conversation by emphasizing the importance of women succeeding financially when graduating with a college diploma.

"College is a great equalizer," Daly said. People born at the bottom of the economic scale who don't go to college have a higher chance of staying at the bottom, she said. But if they seek out a higher education, their chances of improving their lives increase, she said.

Unfortunately, she noted, because of the rising cost of higher education and other deterrents, it's not always easy to navigate the college road.

"While college is a great equalizer in the United States, college is not distributed equally in the United States…Only a small fraction of those born to the bottom actually ever go to college and finish college," she said.

The other keynote speaker, Susan Madsen, founder of the Utah Women and Education Project, said that college graduation struggles are not limited to women.

"We are very, very concerned about the men as well. The numbers have gone down for men as well," Madsen said. "When compared to national averages Utah men and women are not matching the completion rate of their U.S. counterpart."

"As we strive to improve completion rates of all Utahans we cannot devalue the focus on women in order to begin to focus on men. Each gender faces its own unique barriers," said Madsen.

Madsen listed a variety of reasons that influence women to succeed in their higher education careers, including implementing the focus on higher ed at younger ages and surrounding young women with positive education role models and abundant leadership opportunities.

These methods, she said, are needed to combat an attitude that college isn't important.

"There is a strong belief that women need to give up or sacrifice college once they have children, that it is their duty to drop out of school. They cannot see a life of integration," Madsen said. "What we did not hear in our data were things like 'I can go part time now,' 'I can take online classes, 'my husband can watch the kids, the children, in the evening.' It was all or nothing."

Rachel Lopez, who works in Utah County, said she sees women dropping out because they don't know how to function in multiple roles at once.

"It's always been 'the women stay home and take care of the children.' Times have obviously changed," Lopez said. "It's not like that anymore, but the mentality of it is still here in Utah. We need to break that up."

Lopez said it was sad to hear the disheartening statistics, especially those concerning Latinos.