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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Students in the MUSS section at a football game, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Freshman students who want to study at the U. and are faced with other obligations will not have to sacrifice their educational future. A deferment grants them a spot in their class at the U., and we guarantee a seamless re-entry when they are able to return. —U. President David Pershing

SALT LAKE CITY — Students accepted to the University of Utah will now be able to defer the start of their schooling for up to seven semesters — or just more than two years — university officials announced Monday.

Prior to the changes, the university had no enrollment deferment policy, said Mary Parker, associate vice president for enrollment management. Instead, students were required to complete at least one semester before applying for a leave of absence.

But a recent push by U. President David Pershing for a more "holistic" approach to admissions, as well as changes by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to missionary age requirements, led university officials to re-examine the policy of allowing accepted students to postpone their first day of school.

In October, 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.

"It certainly helped to support our case," Parker said of the missionary age requirements, "but we've been looking at our admissions process for a year now."

The university's new holistic admissions process is described as moving beyond grade point averages and ACT scores to instead take a comprehensive look at a student's college qualifications.

Parker said the new process is focused on student success. By not allowing enrollment deferments, the university was discouraging certain students from applying to the university, she said.

Parker said there are various reasons why a student may request a deferment, such as military, humanitarian or religious service or because of illness. The university is eager to be as accommodating as possible, she said, but deferment applications will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

"Don't assume that you'll be approved," Parker said. "You need to go through the process. Depending on the case, we may require certain documentation."

The policy is scheduled to go into effect for the fall 2013 semester and will allow students to defer their enrollment for a maximum of seven consecutive semesters, which includes summer terms.

"This is an important new provision in our enrollment direction, and we strongly encourage students to take advantage of it," Pershing said in a prepared statement. "Freshman students who want to study at the U. and are faced with other obligations will not have to sacrifice their educational future. A deferment grants them a spot in their class at the U., and we guarantee a seamless re-entry when they are able to return."

The new deferred enrollment policy at the U. mirrors recommendations made at other schools in the state following the LDS missionary changes.

Utah State University recently released a statement encouraging students to secure their admission and scholarships before leaving the state for religious, military or humanitarian service. The university has also updated its online leave of absence website to give students a one-stop tool for deferring enrollment.

After the announcement by the LDS Church, USU created a special task force to look at the impact the age changes would have on enrollment and school services.

John Mortensen, assistant vice president for student services and a member of the task force, said students who secure their enrollment and scholarships before leaving for religious service will have an easier time returning to school and will avoid the hassle of trying to submit applications through friends and family.

"Don't wait until you get home. Do it now," Mortensen said. "That way, you're good to go when you come back. Everything is in place."

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The task force is still discussing strategies to mitigate the effects of the age requirement changes, he said. USU officials expect enrollment to dip in the upcoming spring semester and again next fall before surging in 2015 as the first wave of younger missionaries complete their service.

At LDS Church-owned BYU, students also are encouraged to apply for admission and scholarships prior to serving missions, university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said. BYU policy does not require students to complete a semester of schooling before requesting a leave of absence.

"They are able to defer right out of high school," Jenkins said.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com