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New missionary policy impacts LDS students as they change college plans and lives

Published: Monday, Oct. 8 2012 11:29 p.m. MDT

Universities that serve large populations of LDS students are expecting a change in student enrollment soon.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

BYU sophomore Alana Smith's life took an unexpected turn Saturday morning.

Smith had a plan: finish a bachelor's degree in music and theater, and plan a wedding with her boyfriend. But, the 19-year-old coed had a nagging feeling that her plan was missing a step.

"I kept feeling like I should do some kind of mission, and I didn't know why," Smith said. "I didn't know how I would work it into leaving college."

Saturday morning, Thomas S. Monson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced changes to the church's age policy for missionary service and gave Smith the answers she was seeking. In the space of moments, she became one of an uncounted throng of LDS college students who are changing their life plans — including their college plans.

At the Saturday morning session of 182nd Semiannual General Conference, President Monson announced a lower age requirement for missionary service. All worthy young men who have graduated from high school will have the option of being recommended for missionary service at age 18, instead of 19. Young women who wish to serve missions can go at age 19, instead of 21.

A monumental shift

The seismic tremor that is reshaping young adulthood for thousands of LDS youth is rumbling its way through the church's college campuses, too, and shaking up other campuses that serve high proportions of LDS young people. College administrators are trying to figure out what the new policy will mean for their schools.

Smith knows her plan, now. She expects to leave BYU to serve a mission after this semester, though she will complete the full run of BYU's stage production of "Phantom of the Opera." Her boyfriend will wait for her to return.

"We are really serious, and we know we want to be together," Smith said. "I feel like passing up an opportunity to share this wonderful gospel with other people is something I would regret for a really long time."

Leaders at LDS church schools, and other colleges that serve LDS populations, are scrambling to figure out how the new policy will affect their enrollment.

Assessing change

"There is no doubt that the change in missionary service age will impact the university, particularly in such areas as housing and enrollment," said Brigham Young University media relations manager Todd Hollingshead. "What specifically that impact will be, however, still needs to be determined … We are confident that we will be able to continue to provide all of our students with a superb educational experience."

Currently, BYU students can defer enrollment and scholarships for missions right after high school, as long as they have been admitted as daytime, degree-seeking students, Hollingshead said. The policy is under review, however.

BYU-Idaho is looking at the possibility that a significant number of students might leave after this semester, and that next year's freshman enrollment might be reduced as a result students leaving on missions, said enrollment services managing director Rob Garrett.

"We're doing assessments, and trying to get our hands around it as best we can," Garrett said. "What it will look like, I don't know, but it will be different than it is now."

Similar issues face most of the schools affected by the announcement. A drop in enrollment in the near future seems inevitable, followed later by a bump in enrollment as the large initial crop of younger missionaries return and re-enter school.

Demographic makeup of future freshman classes could look different, as young men who went on missions right after high school return and join classes full of students just out of high school.

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