Only 45 percent of Utah’s high school graduates enroll in college the following year — one of the lowest rates in the nation

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Students at Utah Valley University head towards the Sorensen Student Center in this 2016 file photo.

Less than half of Utah high school graduates enroll in college in the year after they get their diplomas, the Utah System of Higher Education reported Thursday, a trend only partially explained by young people serving missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Utah continues to have one of the lowest percentages in the nation of high school graduates going directly to college, with 45 percent of students taking the leap in 2017. Only Idaho and Alaska had lower 2017 rates, both reporting 44 percent of its graduates going straight to college.

It’s not easy to compare whether Utah’s rate has increased over the years, because USHE previously only recorded enrollment for fall semester. This year, it included enrollment for both fall and spring semester. In 2016, the percentage of high school graduates enrolling for fall semester was 41 percent.

“A major factor of the relatively low percentage of high school graduates attending college the following year is explained by the high percentage completing religious service; however, many other students still aren’t finding their way to college that first year,” said Dave Buhler, commissioner of higher education.

When The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reduced the minimum age requirement for missionaries down to 18 for men and 19 for women in 2012, Utah’s public college and universities saw a slight drop in enrollment between fall 2012 and fall 2013, according to USHE.

Higher education officials noted that most of the missionaries returned by fall 2015 and enrolled in colleges and universities.

The Utah Board of Regents is trying to increase enrollment by creating a college access advising program, ensuring each high school in Utah has an advisor who will help students with college applications and with applying for scholarships and financial aid, among other things. Thirty-three Utah high schools will have a college access advisor by this fall.

USHE estimates that high schools with college access advisors will see the college enrollment rates of their graduates increase five to nine percent.