Enrollment at Utah's public colleges and universities declined 3.5 percent this spring semester, a drop attributed in large part to students taking advantage of lower age requirements for missions from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Though nearly 4,000 fewer students enrolled this semester, according to numbers released this week by the Utah System of Higher Education, many of the declines weren't as sharp as school officials feared when they predicted the effect of the lowered mission age late last year.
The biggest drops were at Utah State University, which reported a loss of just over 7 percent, and Utah Valley University, which took a 6.6 percent hit.
Following years of budget cuts from the state, tuition funds the majority of the budget at UVU. The latest enrollment decline will leave a $5.3 million revenue hole, President Matthew Holland said in his state of the university address earlier this month.
"Last time I checked, that's real money," he said. UVU has instituted a hiring "chill" to combat the shortfall, which is also attributed to new academic requirements and application deadlines.
Mormon leaders have already seen mission applications double since announcing lower age thresholds for full-time missionaries in October. Men can serve a two-year mission a year earlier, at 18, while women can now serve at 19 rather than 21.
Women now make up about half the mission candidates, up from 15 percent before the change, and the enrollment numbers reflect the same trend: while men's enrollment decreased by 2.37 percent, women's enrollment went down 4.39 percent.
Some schools are waiting for the other shoe to drop next semester.
"Spring is only a hint," said Scott Wyatt, president of Snow College in Ephraim. Things look dire for his junior college, where 90 percent of the approximately 3,000 students are LDS, the average age is prime for missions at 19.9 and there are no upperclassmen to stay put and keep enrollment steady.
Though the numbers released this week indicated a 3 percent drop at Snow less than the school predicted late last year Wyatt said he expects the decline to continue as the semester continues.
"The third week is a snapshot, not a full picture of what's really happening," he said.
Salt Lake Community College saw its enrollment drop just over 4 percent, but spokesman Joy Tlou said that has more to do with the economy improving and people going to work instead of school.
"This is kind of falling in line with the way things are looking financially in our state right now," he said.
Before a small dip in 2012, enrollment statewide had grown by 18 percent over the past 5 years.
Things are looking better at the University of Utah, the only public school in the state to report an enrollment increase from 2012 to 2013.
"I think we've really done a good job of working on retention and keeping students from fall to spring," said Mary Parker, associate vice president for enrollment management, though she also cast a cautious eye to the future on the effects of the missionary age change. "We're certainly looking at where we're headed for the fall."
Enrollment at Utah System of Higher Education
Spring 2012 to spring 2013
System overall • -3.51%
University of Utah • +0.29 percent
Utah State University • -7.37 percent
Weber State University • -0.70 percent
Southern Utah University • -2.09 percent
Snow College • -3.24 percent
Dixie State University • -3.03 percent
Utah Valley University • -6.55 percent
Salt Lake Community College • -4.18 percent
Source: Utah System of Higher Education, percentage change of full-time equivalent students