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

Published: Monday, Aug. 26 2013 10:11 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."

Based on revenue projections released by Utah State last January, that 500 to 600 student drop would translate into a revenue loss between $2.5 million and $3 million. Unknown at this time is the exact impact on enrollment and revenue and the drop in students at USU's regional campuses, which include USU Eastern.

Mortensen said the tuition waiver passed by the Legislature played a role in curbing the loss of students at USU, with admissions staff making more of an effort out of state than they ever had before. He said the various student service entities on campus worked together proactively, informing students of USU's deferment policies and encouraging high school graduates to secure their admission and scholarships prior to leaving on missions.

"When that missionary announcement was made, at least on our campus, we were meeting the very next Monday talking about ‘OK, where do we go from here’," Mortensen said. "They were recruiting students anyway, they just turned it up a notch."

Weber State University

Weber State University expects to see a dip in enrollment between 5 and 6 percent – or 1,300 to 1,500 students – according to school spokeswoman Allison Hess. While official numbers are not yet available, that range would represent a smaller impact than the 7 percent enrollment dip projected by the school in January.

Because of the fluctuation in the first weeks of the semester, and the high number of part-time students a Weber State, Hess was not able to provide an estimate for how the enrollment dip would translate into tuition revenue. But Hess said that the school saw a bump in enrollment in 2012 – surpassing 26,000 students for the first time – which helps to mitigate the current decrease.

"We were able to plan for it, even during our budget process," Hess said of the dip in enrollment. "This is not coming as a shock for anybody."

Dixie State University

Dixie State University is anticipating a 3 percent to 5 percent drop in enrollment – between 250 and 400 students – which is a smaller decline than the 8 percent dip projected in January. David Roos, executive director of enrollment management said a decrease of that size translates into roughly $1 million in lost tuition revenue for the university.

Roos said the school made a concerted effort in recruiting out of state, particularly in Nevada, Arizona and Southern California, using the out-of-state tuition waiver to appeal to students in those areas.

"It makes us very competitive when they’re looking at their other options," he said. "I think it has played a huge role."

Brigham Young University

At LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, preliminary numbers suggest the fall 2013 enrollment will be down roughly 10 percent – or 3,000 students – from last year, said spokesman Todd Hollingshead.

Hollingshead said the LDS missionary changes appear to have played a significant role in that drop, with the largest losses being seen in freshman male students and women between the ages of 19 and 21.

BYU had not previously released enrollment projections based on the missionary changes and Hollingshead said the 10 percent drop wasn't necessarily above or below the school's expectations.

"We really didin’t know what to expect because we’ve never been through something like this," he said. "We were just watching it and trying to plan as much as we could."

Southern Utah University

Southern Utah University spokeswoman Jessica McIntyre said SUU is anticipating an enrollment drop between 4 percent and 6 percent – or roughly 300 to 500 students – for the fall 2013 semester. She said the average student pays around $5,000 in academic fees for a full academic year, which would suggest a loss of between $1.5 million and $2.5 million for the university.

"We were estimating it to be about 10 percent, so with us looking at a 4 to 6 percent (enrollment decrease) that is easing our minds a little bit," she said. "We wish we didn’t have any drop at all but there are some things that have come up."

Utah Valley University

Whitney Wilkinson, spokeswoman for Utah Valley University, said UVU is looking at a drop in enrollment between 7 and 8 percent, or roughly 2,100 to 2,500 students. She said that drop in enrollment can be partly attributed to the improving economy – as a growing job market pulls students away from the classroom – but the largest effect appears to have been the LDS missionary requirement changes.

"That's kind of the lion's share of where that decrease is coming from," she said.

Salt Lake Community College

Joy Tlou, spokesman for Salt Lake Community College, said the school's enrollment was 26,912 on Thursday, but that number was expected to fluctuate during the first weeks of the semester. That figure is a 1.5 percent dip from last fall – or roughly 300 students – but it is unclear if that change can be attributed to LDS missions as SLCC's average student age is 26.

"It could be explained by the economy, it could be explained by a number of things," Tlou said of the enrollment numbers.

Pamela Silberman, spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education, said the official fall enrollment figures will not be available until early October. Until that time, she said, officials are not able to definitively state the impact on enrollment and tuition revenue in the state.

But she added that preliminary reports from schools suggest that state-wide, the drop in enrollment has not been as severe as projected.

"System-wide the enrolments are not decreasing as much as our projections showed, which is a good thing," she said. "Until we really have third-week numbers we can't do any real analysis on the situation."

Figures for the University of Utah were not available.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

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