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USU Eastern shutters dorm as enrollment fears mount across state

Mormon mission age change could mean big tuition revenue losses

Published: Thursday, Aug. 27 2015 4:29 p.m. MDT

Officials at Utah State University Eastern in Price have closed the doors of Burtenshaw Hall, one of four residence halls at the school, after only 20 students indicated their intent to return for the spring 2013 semester. (USU Eastern Eagle News) Officials at Utah State University Eastern in Price have closed the doors of Burtenshaw Hall, one of four residence halls at the school, after only 20 students indicated their intent to return for the spring 2013 semester. (USU Eastern Eagle News)

PRICE — As Utah's colleges and universities brace for the impact of shrinking enrollment, one school is already feeling the pinch of lost housing revenue.

Officials at Utah State University Eastern in Price have closed the doors of Burtenshaw Hall, one of four residence halls at the school, after only 20 students indicated their intent to return for the spring 2013 semester.

"If we have students here for the fall who need housing, we'll open it," said Alex Herzog, associate vice chancellor for student service.

School officials said the dip in occupants follows a historical fall-to-spring trend. But the decision could also reflect an indication of a looming enrollment and funding crises in higher education as the state's LDS student population reacts to recent changes to missionary age requirements.

In October, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints changed the minimum age of its missionaries from 19 to 18 for men and from 21 to 19 for women. Since that announcement, the church has received a spike in new missionary applications as men and, even more so, women have taken advantage of the lowered age of eligibility.

The change has not gone unnoticed in higher education, as school officials have hastily re-examined their deferred enrollment policies to get ahead of the swelling missionary force and, in some cases, have instituted hiring and expenditure freezes.

Herzog said occupancy at USU Eastern's residence halls was already low and typically falls between the fall and spring semesters. He said he couldn't definitively link the missionary age change to Burtenshaw's closure but added that overall enrollment at the school is down roughly 20 percent compared to last fall.

Residence halls at USU Eastern are currently at 47 percent capacity, Herzog said. While the school does not foresee an immediate need to close other dorms, he said it is a possibility if the declines in enrollment and housing continue.

"It's always a plan B," he said. "It's a question of what we need to do to cut our costs if revenue doesn't come in."

Herzog also said Burtenshaw Hall was deemed the most economically-beneficial dorm to close. He said it is estimated the closure will save USU Eastern between $5,000 and $8,000 in heating and air conditioning costs for each semester it remains unoccupied.

"It will save us a good chunk in electric costs," he said.

In a report released last week by the Utah System of Higher Education, Utah's public institutions expect to see enrollment fall by 2 percent to 10 percent over the next two years and, consequently, are anticipating a loss of millions of dollars in tuition revenue. Still unknown, the report states, is how the age change will affect the ongoing enrollment of women and transfer students, and whether returned missionaries will re-enroll after their service. 

The report also notes that the improving economy makes it difficult to anticipate enrollment numbers, as a limited job market during the recession led to more individuals enrolling in school. As the economy improves, many students are expected to return to the workforce.

The University of Utah, which recently implemented a deferment policy, estimates that the decline in enrollment for the current spring 2013 semester will result in a loss of between $243,000 and $486,000 in tuition and fees. The 2013-14 academic year is expected to see a more dramatic drop, resulting in a revenue loss in the range of $2,532,000 and $5,160,000, or up to 2 percent of total tuition and fee revenue.

"At this point, it's an estimate of what the impact will be," University of Utah spokesman Keith Sterling said, adding that at this point the university had not implemented a hiring or spending freeze.

When asked about the severity of a potential 2 percent dip in tuition revenue, Sterling said that an impact of any size would be felt, but officials will continue to be proactive in mitigating the effects of the change.

"This is new for all of us, and we're all dealing with it," he said. "We'll continue to evaluate this situation over time."

Utah State University, which includes USU Eastern, estimates that between the spring 2013 and fall 2014 semesters, the school will lose 1,900 new and current students for an aggregate tuition revenue loss of $9.5 million.

Between now and the spring 2015 semester, Weber State University expects to see an enrollment decline of 4,400 full-time equivalent students — a measurement used for funding calculations. That decline would mean a loss of more than $4 million in tuition and fees each semester, or $20 million overall, which is roughly 2.5 percent of the operating budget, said Norm Tarbox, vice president for administrative services.

Tarbox said WSU has not yet implemented a hiring or spending freeze, but how the current semester plays out will inform officials' decisions going into the future.

"This thing is going to play out over a long period of time," Tarbox said. "It's very possible we may have to go down that road."

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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