Salt Lake City — Enrollment at Utah colleges and universities has edged downward over the past three semesters, and officials say a lower minimum age for Mormon missionaries has helped drive the trend, especially among young women.
The recent figures are an early indicator that the change in the age threshold for missionaries is affecting young Mormons in Utah. Some state officials say the data raises concerns that Utah's female college students, who rank last in the nation for degrees earned compared with their male counterparts, won't end up graduating.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2012 lowered the minimum age to depart on missions from 21 to 19 for women and from 19 to 18 for men. Since then, the number of applications have shot up, most coming from women, the Salt Lake Tribune reported (http://bit.ly/Qp9SmM ).
"The ones we worry about are the young women going at 19," said David Buhler, the state's higher education commissioner. Those women may interrupt their studies to go on missions, he said.
"Will they return and finish college?" said Susan Madsen, founder of the Utah Women and Education Initiative. "That's the worry now."
At state colleges, enrollment among women has dipped by 4.2 percent, according to new figures released by the Utah System of Higher Education. Among males, it's dropped by 3.8 percent.
It's the third semester in a row that the number of Utah college students has declined after the 2012 announcement.
Among young men, more of them are choosing to serve missions right after high school. That's a trend Buhler expects will lead to more male students graduating from college because they won't interrupt their studies to spend two years away. All able LDS men are expected to serve a mission.
Utah women currently start college at about the same rates as others around the country, but fewer finish four-year degrees. Many women at Utah's colleges and universities drop out to marry and start a family or aim for associate degrees instead, Madsen said.
"Many women aspire to go to college but not necessarily to graduate," Madsen said. "They're thinking they're going to get married and it'll be great, and hopefully it will for them, but statistics show it doesn't always happen that way."
Historically, fewer than one in five in the proselytizing force has been female. Many Mormon women choose to marry and start families before reaching the required age.
But some say that the lowered age gives missions new meaning for young Mormon women. Traditionally, for women, serving a mission is seen as something "you do if you don't have a lot of options," said Candice Backus, a 21-year-old Utah Valley University student from Herriman who is planning to depart for a mission in the spring. But now that the age has been lowered, she said, people see it more as a way to serve.
"It's become more of an opportunity for people," she said.
Backus is a political science major who has interned at the Utah Capitol and in Washington, D.C. She said she plans to go to law school.
Backus said she also has six friends on missions right now, and they expect to buck the worrisome trend anticipated by officials.
"All of my friends who I've talked to, they're all making plans to go back to school," she said. "I think when women return, they'll be focused, not just on getting married but on getting a serious education."
Madsen, of the Utah Women and Education Initiative, says the hard work, study time and long days are good preparation for rigorous college years.
On missions, "you learn how to study," she said, "you learn how to learn."