New study identifies benefits, drawbacks of missionary service gap time for Utah women

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A female student studies on campus. Female students continuing their higher education after a gap experience may need additional support from universities to complete their education, according to a brief published by the Utah Women in Leadership Project. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

The Utah Women in Leadership Project released a brief from research conducted by two BYU employees about the benefits and drawbacks that gap time for missionary service has on women attending college in Utah.

The study collected data from 17,402 female BYU students who enrolled at BYU between fall 2007 to fall 2012 and followed their academic journeys through 2020. Of those women, 29.1% of the study sample took gap time to serve a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Benefits

Women who took gap time for missionary service and then returned to BYU were likely to change their major after their service, with 33% of the women more likely to switch into a major with higher earning potential than women who did not take gap time, according to the study.

Jocelyn Wikle, assistant professor in the School of Family Life at BYU, co-authored the study with Maggie Marchant, assistant librarian over economics, finance, social sciences data and political science at BYU.

“We don’t exactly know all the underlying causes, but it does hint that these women are more confident and comfortable in different spheres as they leave the mission field,” Marchant said.

Marchant and Wikle’s research also discovered that gap time for missionary service can be helpful for women who struggle academically. Among women with ACT scores in the lowest third, those who took gap time for missionary service were 19% more likely to be accepted into a competitive or limited enrollment program. Wikle believes participating in activities such as missionary service is an excellent way for students to set themselves apart.

“For students that don’t test well, there can be a fear that they won’t be competitive because they don’t look stellar on paper … missions are a great way for these women to set themselves apart in competitive situations, resumes and applications,” Wikle said. “I encourage women who feel like they don’t look perfect on paper to find other channels like missionary service, internships or work experience to demonstrate that they have valuable skills and make meaningful contributions.”

Women who chose to take gap time also displayed a 0.1% GPA advantage over women who did not. The brief cites similar research that discovered structured gap time which involves travel corresponds to better academic outcomes for women as they return to college.

Presumably, the educational benefits women experience from structured gap time for missionary service will also help them find success in the professional world as more female graduates from majors with higher earning potential enter the work force.

Drawbacks

One obvious cost of gap time for women is financial stress. Women participating in missionary service for the Church must fund their missions and do not generate any income during the experience. The 18-month gap time for missionary service delays a woman’s education, thereby delaying her entrance into the workforce as well.

While the UWLP brief cites other research that has shown an increased risk of students not returning to college after completing a gap experience, the research conducted by Marchant and Wilke found that 96% of women who took gap time for missions for The Church of Jesus Christ returned to college after time away.

The research also found that women who took gap time to serve a religious mission lagged behind their peers who did not by about 1.5-2 years. Additionally, they discovered that women who opted to take gap time were less likely to graduate college overall, and were ultimately 10% less likely to graduate in 8 years than their peers.

A woman studies on campus. As of Fall 2022, 51% of BYU enrollment was female, with many choosing to participate in gap experiences such as missionary service. (Tyler Richardson/BYU Photo)

As of Fall 2022, 51% of BYU’s student population was female, with many of those women considering missionary service.

Wikle said the research is particularly relevant to the Utah community and its unique religious demographic.

“Deciding to serve a mission can be one of the biggest decisions in a young LDS person’s life, and this is a decision that can alter a person’s life trajectory in profound ways,” Wikle said. “We hope that the information we are putting out will empower women to make the best decisions they can.”

Marchant said she hopes women will use the findings of this study to make the best choice for their lives.

“Good choices are based on good information. It’s good to have all the information so you can make an informed decision,” Marchant said.

Emily Darowski, associate director of UWLP, also said she hopes women will thoughtfully consider the benefits and drawbacks of the experience.

“When we make life decisions like this we need to think about the cost and benefits, and I think that’s what this research does. It’s not saying it’s all good or all bad — there’s both,” Darowski said. “Many of these women also return to college and change their majors, often to higher earning fields. This seems to suggest that their gap time experience helps them better understand themselves which then helps influence their future choices.”

The brief concludes with action and policy recommendations such as encouraging women to consider the costs and benefits of gap experiences, inviting women to make a personal commitment to themselves that they will return and complete school following their gap experience and suggests several ways universities can better support women as they strive to complete their degrees upon returning.

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