Does Going Back to College Really Help Women Get Ahead?

As the recession took away jobs, more women returned to college to further their education

By Mary Patrick
Posted 2013

Does Going Back to College Pay Off for Women?
Does Going Back to College Pay Off for Women?

A trend emerged during the recession that has continued even as the country has recovered: As men continued to work through the downturn, more women returned to college to further their education.

The question is: Will this help or hurt women down the road?

Last year, The New York Times addressed the issue, seeking opinions from a panel of education and women’s issues experts on the current state of women in terms of education and careers.

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Needless to say, there was not complete agreement.

Women Feel the Need for More Education

Stephanie Coontz, an author and a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College, noted many women feel the need for more education to stay even with men because men with lower education levels often earn more than women.

Coontz said that only college-educated women in their early 20s make as much as their male counterparts.

"Aside from the first few years of work, men still out-earn women at every educational level,” Coontz wrote for the Times. “Much of this is because most women remain the ‘default’ parent. They take more time off after having children and are more likely to cut work hours or downshift to jobs that do not fully utilize their qualifications but allow more family flexibility.”

University of Toronto professor Joshua Gans pointed out that women may want to get more education because, as a recent study in Canada found, graduates during the recession had trouble making income levels on par with those who came before or those graduating now.

This gap was even harder to make up for women, “so it is no wonder that they had trouble finding good jobs and that many are pursuing higher education.”

Education May Not Help All Women

Others pointed out that returning to college can be a gamble, particularly for older women who have less working years left to recoup the cost of college.

Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University, wrote that women also face the same glut men face, with an increasing number of graduates competing for a lower number of jobs.

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"Add to that the high probability of notgraduating along with rising college costs often financed by accumulating student debt, and it’s clear: going back to college is not a good move for all American women,” Vedder wrote.

Economist Wilhelmina A. Leigh, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, also wrote that while women are seeking higher degrees, men are in the workforce building networks that will help them down the road.

That said, however, Leigh pointed out that as women eventually attain degrees and move into the workforce over the coming years, the “glass ceiling could indeed vibrate and crack. By the time these young women work their way up their respective career ladders to the top rungs, their long-term presence in the work force could have radically changed the views and practices of people whose decisions could shatter the glass ceiling.”

Clearing a Path For Success

An estimated 1 billion women worldwide will enter the workforce in the coming decade, according to a report in 2012 from Booz & Co. Education will help them achieve their goals, but they will be held back by a number of factors, according to Booz.

The first is the “care economy.” Boozx reported that among the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development – which are the among the most economically-developed countries in the world – women spent 2.4 more hours every day on giving unpaid care to children or elderly parents. The latter issue – providing care to aging parents – often hits women just when they are beginning to take off in their careers.

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Other areas fall under “inclusion,” which is includes such issues as disparate pay, the lack of women in leadership roles and increased difficulties for women to get financing for entrepreneurial ventures.

However, the Booz report notes that government action in some areas can ease these concerns – and attaining higher education can help women position themselves to take advantage of a level playing field.

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