Enrollment at Utah Colleges Grows as Missionaries Return
Community Colleges See Enrollment Dip as Economy Improves
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — 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 show.
The bump was tempered by declines among other groups of students as the improving economy sent people into the workforce instead of the classroom, higher education officials said.
Overall enrollment at Utah’s eight public colleges and universities grew by about 2,000 students in January 2016 compared with the year before, an increase of 1.3 percent, according to Utah System of Higher Education data..
Brigham Young University 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 brought a sharp uptick in the number of college-age missionaries, spokesman Todd Hollingshead said.
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.
The number of missionaries around the world hit a high of 89,000 after the announcement, an increase of about 50 percent and more than at any time in church history. Those numbers have now settled to about 75,000 as many who were part of the surge returned home, according to church figures released Thursday.
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 he is watching female enrollment numbers closely as the students finish their service, which is 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 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. 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.
Enrollment at Salt Lake Community College, for example, dropped about 6 percent compared with the same time last year. Weber State University and Dixie State University also posted small declines.