Fewer students at Utah universities after Mormon mission change

Higher ed -  Some colleges boost out-of-state recruiting.

The Salt Lake Tribune/August 27, 2013

By Lindsay Whitehurst

At the beginning of the first full school year since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lowered age requirements for its missionaries, Utah colleges and universities say they are expecting to lose students, with some projected declines numbering more than 1,000 people.

But at a couple of institutions expecting to be hardest hit by the change, the losses don’t look as serious as feared. At Snow College, for example, President Scott Wyatt was darkly contemplating layoffs last year to ease the loss of tuition dollars. While the junior college did lose two-thirds of its sophomore class, Wyatt said a bumper crop of freshmen more than made up the difference and they may post enrollment growth this fall.

“We’re seeing a huge increase of students from the Wasatch Front, students who want to get away from home, affordably,” he said.

Losses appear somewhat greater than expected at the University of Utah, though. Officials were anticipating one of the smallest drops in the state, but preliminary figures now indicate that the school’s student body could be down as much as 4 percent, according to spokesman Keith Sterling.

LDS Church President Thomas Monson announced lower age thresholds for full-time missionaries in October, allowing men to depart a year earlier, at age 18, and women to go two years sooner, at 19. Able Mormon men are generally expected to complete a mission, and women have signed up in droves since the age change. Considering Utah’s large LDS population, college leaders braced themselves for the loss of millions of dollars in revenue coming after years of state funding cuts at public schools.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest decline so far appears to be at the private Brigham Young University, which looks to be down about 10 percent — or about 3,000 students — compared to last year.

“We really didn’t know what to expect. This is brand-new territory for us,” said Todd Hollingshead, a BYU spokesman. The school, which is owned and operated by the LDS Church, isn’t planning any major changes to deal with the loss.

At Utah State University, meanwhile, leaders are looking at rosier numbers than expected. Though they are still down about 3.5 percent, USU has cut its predicted losses in half.

“Utah State did not wait around to see what happened — we figured out a strategy,” said James Morales, vice president for student services.

A large part of that strategy was aggressive recruiting of out-of-state students, bolstered by a change to Utah law that allowed state schools to drastically increase the number of students offered in-state tuition. When school starts Monday, about 300 more out-of-state students will have those waivers.

Southern Utah University also brought in more non-Utahns, which will make up about 25 percent of its freshman class, said Dean O’Driscoll, vice president for university relations.

“We’re not happy to be down [up to 6 percent], but were happy we’re not down as far as we feared,” he said.

The new law also helped the newly minted Dixie State University in southern Utah.

“We had the wind at our backs [with] getting university status in terms of new marketing and outreach,” said David Roos, executive director of enrollment management. The school bumped up the number of students from nearby Las Vegas, Arizona and Southern California.

But it wasn’t so good for other schools. At private Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Elizabeth Key, interim vice president for enrollment management, said the student body has dropped about 4 percent this year. Though the school did just graduate the largest class in memory, it also lost students to missions and found an “unexpected challenge” in recruiting.

“We had students telling us they were able to obtain in-state tuition with other colleges,” she said. “Typically out-of-state students find our financial-aid package more competitive, but when you’re offering in-state tuition, that definitely turns the tables.”

The LDS Church isn’t the only factor affecting enrollment this year. At Salt Lake Community College, enrollment looks to be down about 1.5 percent. With an average student age of about 27, missions don’t appear to be a factor, but an improving economy sending people to the workforce rather than classrooms could be.

Utah Valley University in Orem and Weber State University in Ogden, meanwhile, are competing with missions and jobs. This year’s student body looks to be down about 6 percent at WSU, according to spokeswoman Allison Hess, and about 7 percent at UVU.

“We’ve been projecting a $6 million to $8 million loss in tuition in 2014 just due to the missionary impact,” said Michelle Taylor, vice president of student affairs at UVU, and school leaders have been combining classes and taking other budget-cutting measures. “The good news is we’re prepared for this.”

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