SALT LAKE CITY — In August, Utah's colleges and universities reported that the effect of recent changes to LDS missionary age requirements would not be as severe as feared, based on preliminary enrollment numbers.
While statewide enrollment dropped by more than 2 percent, roughly 3,700 students, individual schools posted smaller losses than projected, according to enrollment data released Thursday by the Utah System of Higher Education. And in two cases, enrollment increased from a year ago.
“Utah’s public institutions of higher education have been anticipating a decline in enrollments for the past year," Dave Buhler, commissioner of higher education, said in a prepared statement. "As a result, they have undertaken significant and targeted efforts to recruit new students and encourage others to remain enrolled until they leave for missionary service. It is clear that these efforts have been successful.”
In October 2012, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that the minimum age for missionary service had been lowered from 19 to 18 for men and from 21 to 19 for women.
Higher education officials quickly responded by updating their deferral policies and taking advantage of a Legislature-approved tuition waiver to increase out-of-state recruitment efforts.
The new enrollment figures show the University of Utah maintaining its position as the largest public school after surpassing Utah Valley University last year. The state's flagship school was also hit the least by the missionary age change, shedding less than 1 percent of its total headcount since fall 2012.
Southern Utah University was hit the hardest in total headcount, dropping 6.65 percent. In terms of full-time equivalent students, figures used for budgeting purposes, Weber State University saw the biggest percentage drop, slipping 6.94 percent or roughly 1,000 students.
But Dean O'Driscoll, SUU's vice president of university relations, said the numbers represent good news because the school had been anticipating a steeper, 10 percent drop.
"We worked hard to mitigate the expected downturn and so 6.6 is better than 10 percent any way we can look at it," O'Driscoll said. "We’re in much better shape because we did plan months ago for this."
Salt Lake Community College saw its total headcount increase by 3.4 percent at the same time that its full-time equivalent enrollment dropped by more than 4 percent. That suggests that while more students are attending SLCC, a greater number have enrolled in a part-time schedule, which spokesman Joy Tlou said could be a reflection of students returning to work as the economy improves or any number of other factors in an individual student's circumstances.
Because of SLCC's comparatively large number of nontraditional students, enrollment fluctuations throughout the year are common. The average age of SLCC students is 26, making the school less susceptible to the missionary age change.
"We occupy a fairly unique place," Tlou said. "People come to us for so many reasons, not only to transfer to four-year schools, but also to gain specific skills, specific classes and specific experience to improve their situation in the work that they’re doing and the work that they want."
The biggest success story in the new enrollment numbers is Snow College, which saw its headcount and full-time enrollment increase by 0.13 percent and 0.74 percent, respectively, despite being projected to lose as much as 25 percent of its student body to missionary service.
Snow has seen the largest growth of any Utah public school in the past five years. Since 2008, the total number of students at Snow has increased by more than 21 percent, with its full-time population surging by 40 percent in the same time period.
"We’re really delighted. This is the best of news," said Snow College President Scott Wyatt. "We were fully expecting to drop 20 to 25 percent on our Ephraim campus, and to be up is huge."
Pamela Silberman, spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education, said that while enrollment did not decline as much as feared, schools will still see revenue loss as a result of fewer students paying tuition. Those losses will come on top of several years following the recession when state funding for higher education was cut and enrollment surged.
Silberman also said that while school officials expect a renewed increase in enrollment when the first group of younger missionaries return, it is not yet known if the effects of the age change have leveled out.
"You still have a number of institutions that are dealing with pretty large inequities in funding," she said. "Because the decreases were not as large, it does take a little pressure off the institutions, but we don’t know going forward."