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U., USU, BYU weighing impact of Mormon missionary policy change

Published: Saturday, Oct. 13 2012 4:25 p.m. MDT

LDS missionaries react to the news that women can enter the mission field at the age of 19, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

LOGAN — A special task force is being formed at Utah State University to look at strategies for dealing with recent changes to the age requirements for LDS missionaries.

The group will be headed by James Morales, vice president for Student Services. While the specific timeline and membership have not yet been determined, Morales said officials are working as quickly as possible and will draw members from a wide range of campus groups.

"The impact is going to be broad so I suspect the task force membership will also be broad to address the needs of the university," Morales said.

USU is the first university to announce the creation of such a task force, but education officials across the state are looking into what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' new guidelines mean for higher education.

"We're having active discussions at the U.," University of Utah spokesman Keith Sterling said. "I know that our administration is taking a close look at that."

Last weekend, LDS Church President Thomas Monson announced that members of the church who are eligible can now serve missions beginning at age 18 for men and 19 for women. The previous minimum ages for LDS missionaries were 19 for men and 21 for women.

Morales said the age change presents a potentially dramatic shift in the way Utah high school students apply for college admission, scholarships, housing and other higher education services. But the key question the task force will examine, he said, is what short- and long-term effects the new guidelines will have on college enrollment.

"Enrollment cuts across virtually every aspect of the university," he said. "We've got to look at this comprehensively."

The potential ramifications are even greater at church-owned Brigham Young University, where more than 90 percent of male students and roughly 20 percent of female students serve a mission by the time they graduate, according to university officials.

So far, BYU officials have not chosen to convene a special task force to address the changes, but university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said in a prepared statement that the administration is excited about what the announcement means for BYU students and other young adults in the church.

"Although there are questions we cannot answer immediately, we will be looking closely at how our students and prospective students respond to this change," she said. "We are confident that we will be able to continue to provide all of our students with a superb educational experience."

Jenkins said that for now, BYU has the necessary committees in place to deal with the issues the changes present. But she added that officials will monitor how students respond and then make the necessary adjustments. Parents or students with questions are encouraged to call the campus department they normally would, such as Admissions or Resident Life for housing issues.

Morales said the lowered age requirement is expected to have an immediate impact on freshman enrollment at USU — perhaps as early as January's spring semester — but eventually is expected to return to normal as students complete their missions. He said the best guess is that in two years, when the first generation of affected missionaries end their service, enrollment numbers will have leveled out.

But that still leaves the prospect of a scant freshman class as universities wait for a swelling missionary force to return to school through attrition. Phillip Snyder, who chairs the English department at BYU, said decisions on staffing and course offerings have already been made for next semester, adding that both students and faculty are not particularly worried about a freshman fallout.

The prospect of more students serving missions, particularly female students who make up two-thirds of the English department, is only viewed as a positive thing on campus, he said.

"We're happy to make whatever adjustments need to be made," Snyder said. "We'll adapt, adjust and move forward."

While colleges and universities across the state are scrambling to prepare for the change, Morales said there are a number of benefits to the church's decision. By serving missions before beginning college — or earlier on in their college career — many students, he said, will not see as large of an interruption in their coursework.

Older freshmen also means a more mature freshman class, Morales said, which could shorten the completion time for some students and help with graduation attainment rates. 

"There are going to be some upsides to this," he said.

Officials have only begun to address what adjustments will need to be made in campus services, but Morales said for now, parents or students with concerns should contact the university's admissions office.

"That's the main contact at this point," he said. "Our admissions staff is prepared to answer questions."

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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