SALT LAKE CITY — The enrollment fallout at Utah colleges and universities from the age drop of LDS missionaries will not be as significant as originally feared.
In January, the Utah System of Higher Education released a report projecting enrollment dips of between 2 percent and 10 percent at Utah's public schools after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints changed the allowable age of missionary service from 19 to 18 for men and 21 to 19 for women.
Those dips were expected to coincide with millions of dollars of lost tuition revenue, leading several schools to implement hiring and expenditure freezes.
But most schools reported Wednesday that the effect on enrollment will not be as severe as anticipated, due in part to an out-of-state tuition waiver passed by the Legislature this year that allowed for increased recruitment efforts.
"It was enormously helpful," Utah State University President Stan Albrecht said of the waiver. His comments came at the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee meeting in Salt Lake City Wednesday.
Albrecht said Utah State is expecting an annual enrollment drop of less than 500 students this fall, down from a projected 1,400-student dip. Utah Valley University President Matthew Holland said UVU's dip in enrollment will be around 7 percent, as opposed to the 9 percent drop projected in January's report, and will likely be the highest percentage drop of the Utah System of Higher Education.
Dixie State University and Snow College also reported that their enrollment drops will not be as severe as originally projected.
David Buhler, Utah commissioner of higher education, told members of the committee that $4.3 million of a $9 million appropriation given to higher education during the most recent legislative session is being directed toward initiatives to increase college and university completion. He said roughly half of the students who enter the Utah System of Higher Education eventually graduate, which is not a proportion that officials are satisfied with.
"Right now, Utah is No. 2 in the country for the percentage who have some college without a degree," Buhler said. "I’m not real proud of that."
Buhler said officials are working on a systemwide push to encourage students to take a full 15-credit-hour workload each semester. He said there has been a myth perpetuated that 12 college credits constitutes "full time," when in reality a 12-credit course load does not allow a student to complete an associate degree in two years or a bachelor's degree in four.
He said by taking one more class for a 15-credit schedule, students save themselves the time and cost of a full year when working toward their bachelor's degree.
Individual schools have been encouraged to establish 15 credits as the full-time standard, he said, and better inform students about plateau tuition that sets a common price point for a workload between 12 and 15 credits.
"Students can take 15 hours at the same price of tuition as 12 hours," he said. "That is a huge advantage that I don’t think a lot of students understand."
Other initiatives to increase completion include encouraging students to enroll in mathematics during their first year of higher education, creating clear graduation maps for all offered majors and implementing terminal degrees or stackable credentials for students who fail to complete their education.
He said a student who holds a credential, while short of a full degree, is better positioned for the workforce than a student with a series of completed college credits.
"We want to help them," he said. "This is all about helping students to be successful."
Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, agreed with the importance of encouraging college completion. He said that for many students, failing to complete their education results in financial repercussions they carry for years.
"Accumulating debt without a degree is a road to financial difficulties for a lot of people in this country," he said.
State Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, questioned why economically beneficial degrees like science or engineering typically carry surcharges in the form of lab fees and supplemental costs that students in other degree fields are not required to pay. He said that model encourages students to pursue careers that are not in demand in Utah's growing economy.
"I would say that the social science degrees, that don’t line up with the kind of employment that our economy needs, are a much higher cost per student to taxpayers than those engineering degrees," Stephenson said. "I would charge those 25 percent more and not the engineering degrees."
Buhler responded that schools offer scholarship opportunities in science and engineering and that for the most part, students in those fields are not impeded in choosing one degree over another due to cost.
The earning potential of science and engineering careers is also typically higher than careers in the humanities and social sciences.
Buhler also spoke about the efforts of Utah's colleges and universities to increase the amount of summer semester course offerings. But he said one concern is the administration of federal Pell Grants, which can only be used for two semesters in a calendar year and deincentivize students from studying during the summer month.
He said he and Utah's college and university presidents had written a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives urging a reconsideration of Pell Grant funding.
"The way that they’re doing accounting in Congress, it’s really silly," he said. "It would be in their interest to say, 'Use it as quickly as you can,' not 'You’ve got to take the summer off.'"
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