The University Record, February 07, 2000

New U-M study shows that barriers to college degrees still exist for women

By Amy Reyes
News and Information Services

A report recently issued by the Center for the Education of Women, ‘Michigan: A ‘Smart State’ for Women?’ emphasizes the importance of education in increasing women’s participation in the labor force; reducing unemployment, poverty and welfare dependence; overcoming the wage gap between women and men; and meeting the needs of Michigan businesses for skilled employees. The report also details barriers to higher education including educational costs, insufficient need-based financial aid, inadequate child care resources and policies created under welfare reform. U-M Photo Services file photo by Paul Jaronski
A new report from the Center for the Education of Women (CEW) shows that although women have made great strides in higher education in Michigan, they still face barriers to education, some of which can be addressed by policy changes.

“Michigan: A ‘Smart State’ for Women?” emphasizes the importance of education in increasing women’s participation in the labor force; reducing unemployment, poverty and welfare dependence; overcoming the wage gap between women and men; and meeting the needs of Michigan businesses for skilled employees. The report also details barriers to higher education including educational costs, insufficient need-based financial aid, inadequate child care resources, and policies created under welfare reform.

“We wanted to shed light on a number of complex issues that may negatively impact women pursuing higher education. Because women now make up the majority of students at many institutions, there is the perception that all of the barriers have come down. For some women this is true, but in other cases critical barriers remain,” said CEW Director Carol Hollenshead.

According to Hollenshead, only 15 percent of Michigan women have completed four years of college or more, compared with a national average of 18 percent. Just 27 percent have completed one to three years.

Those figures cause concern, Hollenshead said, because the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 70 percent of the 30 fastest-growing occupations generally require post-secondary education or training. Jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree are growing the fastest.

“Reducing barriers to women’s education is a major means of increasing the number of skilled workers and keeping employers and jobs in Michigan,” Hollenshead noted.

Even with college degrees, women face other barriers, the report states. Michigan women earn only 62 percent of what men earn, placing Michigan 45th among the states in the ratio of women’s earnings to men’s. Because women earn less than men, they may have more trouble paying back student loans, or take longer to do so. And because a majority of women who attend college do so on a part-time basis, they face increased costs, defer the economic benefit of degree completion, and are more at risk of dropping out.

“As primary care-givers, women students who are parents often carry the added financial burden of child care, which averages $460 per month in Michigan child care centers. In addition to cost, availability of high-quality care is an acute problem, particularly in the evening when many students attend class and study,” said Susan W. Kaufmann, senior author of the report and CEW associate director.

According to the report, welfare reform policy since 1996 also has presented a serious barrier to recipients continuing their education, and college enrollment of single mothers receiving public assistance has declined in Michigan.

“Education is by far the most reliable means to lift families out of poverty. It is essential to increase access to higher education for welfare recipients, reopening the door that was largely closed under welfare reform in 1996,” Kaufmann said.

The report outlines changes that were adopted in Michigan last year, allowing some recipients to pursue post-secondary education under limited circumstances, and suggests other policy changes that would make achievement of two- and four-year degrees more possible. Other states, including Illinois and Maine, have developed policies that support the completion of college degrees by welfare recipients, Kaufmann noted.

Among policy changes recommended in the report:

  • Increase the priority given to appropriating funds for higher education in Michigan.

  • Increase funding to Michigan’s need-based financial aid programs.

  • Create state financial aid programs for part-time students and student parents.

  • Increase support for campus-based child care for low-income students.

  • Modify state welfare policies in order to recognize the role of education in fostering long-term self-sufficiency.

    The CEW report was funded by the Grand Rapids-based Nokomis Foundation. The report is co-authored by Jeanne E. Miller and Jean Waltman, also of CEW, and by Sally Sharp, graduate student in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education.