Here's how Utah colleges avoided steep enrollment drops after Mormon missionary change

Published: Monday, Aug. 26 2013 10:00 a.m. MDT

The Spencer Fox Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah is pictured on Thursday, August 30, 2012. Utah's colleges and universities have been working to curb the effects on enrollment of recent changes to the age requirements of LDS missionaries.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made its historic announcement in October that the qualifying age for missionaries had been lowered to 18 for men and 19 for women, Utah's higher education community saw a storm approaching.

But a quick response by school administrators and lawmakers appears to have parted the clouds and averted the money loss that could have resulted from a student exodus.

As the ranks of LDS missionaries swelled to record numbers, administrators convened special task forces and ramped up recruitment efforts to replenish their student bodies. State education officials also worked with lawmakers to pass SB51, which allowed schools to waive the increased tuition for out-of-state students based on merit.

Final enrollment numbers will not be available for several weeks. But officials at Utah's public colleges and universities reported the drop in students is less than anticipated and in at least one case enrollment appears to be up.

Snow College

"It's hard to explain how excited everybody is," said Scott Wyatt, president of Snow College, who expects enrollment at his school to increase by 2 to 4 percent when the official fall numbers are calculated, despite being originally projected to be hit hardest by the LDS missionary age change.

Wyatt said Snow was anticipating a drop of 25 percent, or more than 1,000 students, which would have translated into a hit of roughly 10 percent to the school's budget in tuition revenue losses.

That scenario nearly became a reality, Wyatt said, as the school's sophomore student class was slashed by more than two-thirds, the majority of whom left to serve LDS missions. But that loss was recouped with new students through a concerted recruitment effort that articulated the advantages of a smaller, affordable, nationally ranked junior college.

"What we had been doing in the past is saying Snow College is affordable, but people don’t know what that means," he said. "What we say now is you can actually move out of your parents' basement, move into a dorm and spend less money going to college than you would staying home."

Snow College admissions staff and recruiters also worked to emphasize the unique atmosphere of Snow College, where the average age is 19 and 90 percent of the student body live within walking distance of campus.

"It’s a riot," Wyatt said. "It’s just so much fun."

Wyatt said the school still expects a traditional fall-to-spring enrollment falloff, which could be greater this year due to students leaving on missions. But he said the fall boost should carry the school through the year, especially considering the proactive steps taken by faculty in anticipation of an enrollment cliff.

"I think we’re out of the woods, but if we’re up a little bit on tuition collection in the fall we may be down a little in the spring," he said. "We’ve been really careful with our budget so even if we’re down a little bit we should be safe."

Utah State University

At Utah State University, which was the first school to convene a special task force to address the enrollment threat, officials expect the drop in enrollment to be roughly half of the 1,250 students the school projected to lose from the Logan campus.

"My best guess right now is we’ll be down 500 to 600 on the Logan campus," said John Mortensen, USU's vice president for enrollment services and retention. "Our admissions office has done an amazing job at recruiting new students to fill in the cracks."

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