Enrollment at Utah colleges grows as missionaries return

Ari Davis
Returned Sister missionaries Afton Izu, Kjersten Johnson and Emily Prawitt pose with one of their missionary name tags. Utah college enrollment numbers have increased due to the mission age change as missionaries return. (Ari Davis)

The number of students at Utah colleges increased again this year as returning Mormon missionaries flooded back to school, helping campuses recover from enrollment drops following the church’s historic move to lower missionary ages, new data shows.

The current bump was tempered by declines among other groups of students as the improving economy sent people to the workforce instead of the classroom, higher education officials said.

Enrollment at Utah’s eight public colleges and universities grew by a total of about 2,000 students in January 2016 over the year before, an increase of 1.3 percent, according to Utah System of Higher Education data released Wednesday.

BYU also added about 2,000 students this year, a 7 percent increase. That brings the private school’s enrollment back to where it was before the 2012 age change announcement brought a sharp uptick in the number of college-age missionaries, said spokesman Todd Hollingshead.

The institution operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints counts most of its students as members and saw a steep 10 percent drop after the change was announced.

The change in the minimum age from 21 to 19 for women and 19 to 18 for men was the first since 1960 and led to an historic surge in the church’s proselytizing force.

Colleges and universities didn’t lose as many students as feared, but the declines were more pronounced among women.

Dave Buhler, the state’s commissioner for higher education, says they’re watching female enrollment numbers closely as the students finish their service of 18 months for women and two years for men.

Student totals at Utah public schools are still a few hundred shy of their 2012 levels.

“Overall, it’s a pretty modest increase, but when you look at it, several institutions have pretty significant increases,” Buhler said. He expects the state’s relatively young, fast-growing population to keep enrollment humming in the coming years.

The biggest percentage gains this semester came at Southern Utah University in Cedar City and the two-year Snow College in Ephraim, which both saw increases of about 12 percent.

The missionary factor isn’t the only thing affecting the student pool this year. Student enrollment also tends to ebb and flow with the economy, and as more jobs open up in Utah, some prospective students go to work instead of school, Buhler said.

The student pool at Salt Lake Community College, for example, dropped about 6 percent compared to the same time last year. Weber State University and Dixie State University also posted small declines.

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