More missionaries means fewer college students

Jorgen Sumsion spent the fall semester studying biostatistics at Brigham Young University, but he’s not enrolled this semester.

Sumsion is still in Provo, but the 18-year-old is at the Missionary Training Center preparing for a Mormon mission in Taiwan. He plans to continue his studies at BYU _ after he returns from his two-year mission.

Colleges and universities across Utah are dealing with the temporary loss of Mormon students like Sumsion. It is one of many ripple effects from the Oct. 6 announcement by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to lower the minimum age for missionaries: from 21 to 19 for women; and from 19 to 18 for men.

Enrollment is down 1-7 percent at nine Utah universities and colleges compared to the same time last year, show figures from the Utah System of Higher Education and the LDS-owned and operated BYU. The only school to report an increase is the University of Utah, where enrollment is up by less than 1 percent.

The improving economy may have led some students to return to the workforce, but higher education officials agree that the primary reason for the enrollment decrease is the age change for Mormon missionaries.

Mission applications are up two-fold since that announcement, the church says, as new, younger missionaries prepare to head out at the same time as older missionaries who were already planning to go.

Colleges and universities are expecting even larger enrollment decreases in the fall semester. By that time, more prospective missionaries will have completed an application process that typically takes six months.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the full impact,” said Pamela Silberman, spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education. “Even though many people have applied, they may not go until the summer. The fall is when we are going to see a larger impact.”

Higher education officials are projecting losses in the millions over the next 2 1/2 years due to the lost tuition. Utah State projects losses of as much as $9.5 million; Weber State estimates $18 million; and Utah Valley University anticipates losing between $14 million to $19 million.

In the Utah legislature, a senator has introduced a proposal that would help fill the void by offering in-state tuition to high-achieving out-of-state students. At Utah State, recruiters are making extra efforts to try to lure transfer and out-of-state students to offset the revenue loss, said John Mortensen, assistant vice president for enrollment services.

Church leaders and outside scholars believe the age change is likely to have the most impact on young Mormon women. Rather than having to leave at age 21 _ when many women are about to start careers or perhaps are contemplating marriage and starting families _ Mormon women can now serve missions shortly after high school.

Not surprisingly, enrollment decreases are greatest among women.

Enrollment is down 4 percent for women at Utah’s eight public colleges and universities. For men, it’s down just 2 percent, state figures show.

At BYU, enrollment among female students has decreased two-fold, while male enrollment has remained the same, said Todd Hollingshead, spokesman for the university.

About half of all new applications to go on missions have been from women, Mormon church officials said. Previously, only 15 percent of missionaries were women.

The change in the minimum age, the first since 1960, is sending ripples across Mormon culture, affecting not only college enrollments, but how university athletic coaches recruit and how young people plan their early adult years. The effects are most pronounced in Utah, home to 1.9 million members and the church’s worldwide headquarters.

Utah Valley University in Orem and Utah State University, which has its main campus in Logan, report the biggest decreases in spring enrollment. The total number of students enrolled is down about 7 percent from the same time last year at those two schools, which each have about 27,000 students. That includes all students, whether they are taking one class or a full load.

Colleges don’t formally track religious affiliation, but Utah Valley estimates that 80-85 percent of its students are LDS based on what students mark in voluntary surveys.

Enrollment is down about 4 percent at BYU compared to the last year, Hollingshead said. Non-Mormon students can attend BYU, but they estimate about 98 percent of the students are LDS, Hollingshead said. Enrollment at Brigham Young University-Idaho is also down slightly.

Enrollment is up at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The 31,000 students are about 1 percent more than the same time the year before. The state’s flagship university has far fewer Mormon students, about one-third of its students, than other state schools. It is the only university reporting an enrollment increase.

Enrollment is down 3 percent at Dixie State University in St. George and Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City. It is down 2 percent at Weber State and Southern Utah universities, and down by less than 1 percent at Snow College, which has only 3,700 students.

The concerns are mainly for the short term _ the same double dose of outgoing missionaries will bring a double dose of returning missionaries to colleges and universities. Men serve two years; women go for 18 months.

“Over the next couple of years, things will kind of recalibrate,” said Hollingshead, the BYU spokesman.

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