Announcements by the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints tend to come without much warning, and on October 6 the church’s leadership dropped a bombshell.
Effective immediately, the church’s leadership said during the opening session of its semiannual General Conference, the minimum age for Mormon missionaries would be lowered from 19 for men and 21 for women to 18 and 19, respectively. That might not sound significant to individuals outside the faith, but reporters noted that the audience in the hall audibly gasped at the announcement.
And it meant something big for institutions like the Utah Valley University, Weber State University, the University of Utah and other colleges and universities with large Mormon populations, who realized they had a challenge on their hands.
Mormon missions, in which young men and women generally spend two years or 18 months, respectively, in a location determined by the church (often abroad), proselytizing and engaged in humanitarian, community and church service, are a rite of passage for many of the faith. The church's announcement means that essentially two cohorts of college-aged men and three cohorts of college-aged women will be departing for missions simultaneously.
That means that for roughly the next five semesters -- the amount of time it takes for those cohorts to depart and return -- institutions with large LDS populations will have to confront decreased tuition revenue and enrollment as the number of Mormon missionaries, both men and women, surges.
The LDS Mission:
Young members of the LDS church, particularly young men, are encouraged to serve a mission in which they engage in proselytizing, community and church service and humanitarian aid.
The church assigns applicants to one of 340 geographic areas, called “Missions.” These are often abroad, requiring missionaries to learn a foreign language.
Missions are voluntary and individuals must cover the cost of the mission themselves, though the church does provide financial support to those who cannot cover the cost.
Service typically lasts two years for men and 18 months for women.
While enrollments are expected to stabilize after that period, the ripples of the missionary age change could present countless challenges for institutions that serve large Mormon populations. These institutions will have to evaluate how they recruit young men who will likely depart on two-year missions before ever setting foot on campus, how they retain missionaries who might have little connection to campus, how to serve students when they return from what many consider life-changing experiences, and how to engage with a group of young men who will be two years older than many of their peers and more likely to be married, have kids and be less engaged in campus life.
“There is a parallel between a returned missionary and a veteran,” said David Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame and member of the LDS church who studies religion. “In the same way that campuses have had to adjust to all these returning veterans, universities that serve a large number of Mormons in similar ways will have to think about ways to serve students who might want to re-enter college at odd times, students who might be fluent in a foreign language, who might be a little older and at a different life stage.”
And the ripples don’t stop there. Individuals in the church and those who study it say the age change will likely lead to a much larger number of female missionaries departing during college, and institutions will have to learn to serve them. They also point to potential changes in dating and marriage patterns, student behavior and engagement, and potentially even gender dynamics – a tricky subject for a religion that tends to encourage more traditional roles for women – all of which will have to be addressed by institutions that serve large numbers of LDS students.
The age change of LDS missionaries is an example of how decisions that may appear unrelated to higher education can present a host of unexpected challenges to colleges and universities and force them to rethink business as usual.
"Even as all of us note, and many share in, the celebratory nature of this change for so many in our community, and even as we anticipate some distinct benefits associated with young students coming back and starting their academic career on a more mature and disciplined plane, we note that this change is already presenting some very significant short-term challenges," said Utah Valley University President Matthew S. Holland in his State of the University Speech on Feb. 6.
An Unanticipated Decline
"From virtually the very moment the missionary age change was announced, we and most other institutions in the system have been furiously trying to project enrollment impact."
--Matthew S. Holland, president of Utah Valley University
The aspect of the age change that will have the most immediate impact on colleges and universities is the decrease in enrollment. This spring several universities reported that hundreds of expected students, mostly 18-year-old freshmen who had been expecting to stay on campus until they turned 19 but could now depart for their missions a semester early, did not show up for the first day of classes.
University administrators predict that colleges and universities will likely see roughly double the number of men leave for missions than they would have seen under the old system – those who would have left this year under the old system plus a new class of 18-year-olds who no longer have to wait.
Change in Missionary Applications
In the first two weeks following the announcement, applications for missions increased 471 percent.
Slightly more than half the applications were from women, who currently make up about a fifth of the mission force.
Because males in the church are strongly encouraged to serve missions and since the practice is already fairly common, predicting their numbers is not that difficult, administrators said. What is more difficult is predicting how the age change could affect the number of female missionaries. The number of women applying for missions surged after the announcement, and administrators are unsure where it will eventually stabilize.
The change will hit most prominently at institutions with large Mormon populations. Many of those institutions, such as the three campuses of Brigham Young University (the main campus in Provo, Utah; BYU-Idaho; and BYU-Hawaii), which are owned by the church, and Southern Virginia University, which is not owned by the church but promotes an LDS lifestyle. But the group also includes public universities in states with large numbers of Mormon students, such as those in Utah, home to 1.9 million members of the church, as well as Idaho, Nevada and Arizona. (This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to clarify Southern Virginia's relationship with the LDS church.)
In January, the Utah Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s eight public institutions of higher education, heard reports from the colleges and universities about how the change is likely to affect their enrollments and revenue streams. Most of those institutions said they had been working with local church leaders to assess the potential effects of the change from the moment it was announced.
“It is clear that all [Utah State Higher Education] institutions are spending significant time and energy preparing for the impact that the LDS missionary age change will have on their enrollments, revenues and operations,” the system’s administration said in the report. “Although the actual size of the impact beyond the next semester or two is uncertain, campus administrations are making their best projections and tracking the data carefully.”
Projected Enrollment Changes:
University of Utah
Spring 2013: 80 to 160 students
Fall 2013: 420 to 860 students
Utah State University
Spring 2013: 200 current students
Fall 2013: 600 current students and 650 new freshmen
Fall 2014: 650 new freshmen
Weber State University
Spring 2013: 300 FTE
Fall 2013: 900 FTE
Spring 2014: 1000 FTE
Fall 2014: 1200 FTE
Spring 2014: 1000 FTE
Utah Valley University
Spring 2013: 395 to 561 FTE
Fall 2013: 1,177 to 1,566 FTE
Spring 2014: 1,111 to 1,479 FTE
Fall 2014: 1,424 to 1,812 FTE
Spring 2015: 1,344 to 1,720 FTE
Source: Utah Board of Regents
Administrators predicted enrollment declines between a few dozen and a few thousand and tuition revenue declines between 2 percent and 10 percent over the next five semesters, as well as declines in auxiliary revenues such as campus housing and campus bookstores. Those institutions with more diverse populations and revenue streams, such as the University of Utah and Utah State University, will face fewer challenges than those with larger LDS populations and a greater dependence on tuition revenue.
Most of the institutions said they would be able to weather the revenue decline in a manner similar to how they have swallowed state budget cuts, through efforts like temporary hiring freezes and retirement incentives.
The public institution predicting the largest impact is Utah Valley University, where more than 80 percent of the student body identifies as part of the LDS faith. The university is predicting a loss of up to $19 million in tuition revenue over the next three years as a result of the age change, which comes on the heels of several years of declining enrollments.
"From virtually the very moment the missionary age change was announced, we, and most other institutions in the system have been furiously trying to project enrollment impact," Holland said. He added that his institution is engaged in a collaborative, iterative process with campus and system administrators, as well as the church's leadership, to estimate the impact.
Weber State University administrators predict a loss of tuition revenue of an average of $3.6 million a semester. They said they have discussed with state lawmakers the possibility of receiving state funds to minimize the impact of enrollment declines.
A spokeswoman for Brigham Young in Provo, Utah, said the university has not calculated the potential financial effects of the change. “There is no doubt that the change in missionary service age will impact the university, particularly in such areas as housing and enrollment,” Carri Jenkins, the university spokeswoman, said in a written statement. “What specifically that impact will be, however, still needs to be determined.”
BYU has a large number of applications and the country’s highest yield. Individuals not associated with the university speculated that its enrollment will probably not be as affected as other institutions, since the university can find other people to fill seats.
Administrators from BYU-Idaho and Southern Virginia University said their institutions have been growing over the past few years, and they expect that continued growth will help minimize any financial difficulty posed by the increased numbers of missionaries.
Longer-term budget impacts are also something affected institutions are trying to weigh, and opinions are divided on what that effect could be.
One school of thought says the number of LDS college graduates could decline as students face greater pressures outside class.
“We know that the older you get and the more time you spend away from college and the more commitments we have, the harder it is to go to school,” said Norm Tarbox, vice president for administrative services at Weber State. “Historically Utah scores well on the number of high school students going to college, but not as well on the number completing college. The common logic is that it’s the mission, early marriage, early children and the complications of life that make it harder and consequentially less likely for individuals to graduate. Given the fact that missionaries will now go out at an earlier age, and will likely see those complications come earlier in life, does that affect their success in school or not? We hope not.”
Others argue that the church’s culture will lead to a greater emphasis on college completion. Missions tend to set men on a life path that includes marriage, college graduation and a middle- or upper-class career. LDS missionaries are more likely to finish college than are their peers who don’t serve missions.
If more individuals serve missions than in the past and fewer decide to leave the church, Campbell said, then more will also likely end up attending college. “I suspect what will happen, given the tight connection between the college experience and being active in the faith, is that fewer young Mormons will drop out of the religion and out of that life trajectory,” he said.
A Culture Change
“The mission is a critical moment. Missionaries are heavily socialized into the church, and it is a very, very powerful experience.”
--David Campbell, professor, University of Notre Dame
Scholars familiar with the LDS community suggest that the move is partly a bid to retain young people, who have been leaving the church in larger numbers in recent years. Surveys have found that about 60 percent of people raised in the LDS church still identify with it as adults, meaning about 40 percent leave. While the number remaining in the faith is high compared to many religions, Campbell and others say that it is a concern for the church’s leadership.
“The question facing every religion is how do you hold on to your young people when they move from adolescence to young adulthood,” Campbell said. “The LDS church does better than most, but it’s nowhere near 100 percent.”
Unlike many other religions, where going to college often presents challenges to individuals' religious identities, Mormons who attend college are more likely to remain affiliated with the faith because they often become engaged with other Mormon college students and are often asked to hold leadership positions within the church. At colleges and universities that serve large numbers of LDS students, the church has set up institutes where students go to learn about the religion and interact with other members of the faith.
Campbell said one of the biggest challenges for the church is individuals who graduate high school and don’t go directly to college. A large number of those individuals have fallen out of the community and never go on a mission or get married within the church. Studies have found that Mormons who serve missions and individuals who get married in the church are more likely than others to remain active in the religion, and the church's recent announcement encourages them to do both at a younger age.
BYU Campus Life:
Percentage of students who have served missions:
- Male: 79 percent
- Female: 10 percent
- Total: 46 percent
Percentage of students who are married: 21 percent
“The mission is a critical moment. Missionaries are heavily socialized into the church, and it is a very, very powerful experience,” Campbell said. “You basically spend two years worrying about other people and you have this intensive experience. Missionaries almost always leave with a tight connection to the church. And since the church stresses the importance of education, you could see more going on to college than in the past.”
The "gap year," as individuals refer to the year young men spent on college campuses between high school and their mission, presented an array of challenges for the church. "A student goes to college, he might be under pressure to party, experience life a little bit differently, and when the time comes to go on mission, some of them don’t want to do that," said Ryan Cragun, a sociology professor at the University of Tampa who studies Mormonism. Cragun, who was raised in the LDS faith, left the church after his mission.
The church’s leadership has said it does not expect all young men to take their missions at 18. "I am not suggesting that all young men will -- or should -- serve at this earlier age," Thomas Monson, the church’s president, said at the October announcement. “Rather based on individuals' circumstances, as well as upon determination by priesthood leaders, this option is now available."
Still, a large number of men are likely to do so. Southern Virginia asks students whether they plan to take a mission and when. Brett Garcia, the college's vice president for enrollment services, said a large number of applicants are hoping to take their missions before freshman year.
Campbell said he was not sure some students would want to change the traditional pattern. Many parents might want their children to have a year away from home to grow as individuals and explore before becoming so engaged in the church, he said.
The church’s overall goal is to have a larger number of individuals serve missions, which could lead to greater numbers of young Mormons becoming more involved in the life of the church. If that holds true and returned missionaries do become more engaged in the religious community, leading to earlier marriages and children, the could mean Mormon students will be less likely to engage in campus life, which could present another set of challenges for university administrators.
A Better Student?
Devin G. Pope, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and a returned LDS missionary, said he believes the lowered age could lead to improved student performance among those students who serve a mission.
Pope studied the academic performance of college students before and after their missions. By comparing the performance of students who took their second before the mission and those who took it after the mission, he found that taking a mission raised students' GPAs by an average of 0.24 for men and 0.11 for women.
“It’s hard to tell what’s driving that,” Pope said in an interview. “It could be that a Mormon mission, because of its intensity and focus, could improve performance, or it could just be that two years of maturation goes a long way.”
Pope said he thinks the shift is a good idea, noting that first-year students who plan to go on a mission are often distracted from coursework by the process.
“I think what my findings suggest are that students do take school more seriously after a mission and tend to perform better,” he said. “By serving right up front, they could take the first and second semester more seriously than they would have otherwise.”
Several people said that, based on their own experiences, individuals who serve missions tend to return with better study skills -- missionaries are supposed to study every night while on their mission -- as well as a greater interest in pursuing and completing their education.
Bruce Bowen, associate provost for enrollment services at Weber State, said the change presents a challenge to recruitment, since many might not enroll until two years after high school. “Our plan is to recruit them just as we have in the past, during their senior year of high school," he said. "The message is to make sure you apply for admissions, scholarships, transfer any AP credits and concurrent enrollment work you might have. We will hold your space and scholarships while you are gone for two years.”
Garcia said that if students apply for and accept admission before they depart for their missions, the college will freeze the first year's tuition price for them at the level they would have paid if they had enrolled straight out of high school.
The college, which traditionally operates under a semester system, is also setting up a block schedule for students who might leave and return from their missions at odd times of the year. "This way they'll be able to get some credits in before they go," Garcia said.
Weber State and other Utah universities have set up informational websites to instruct students on what they should do before they leave for their missions and after they return to ensure that the process goes smoothly. The Utah Board of Regents report noted that all the state's universities have re-evaluated their policies regarding admissions deferral policies.
A Coming Debate About Women
“Within Mormonism, this change is huge. It will transform Mormonism in ways we cannot fully anticipate."
--David Campbell, professor at the University of Notre Dame
Administrators and scholars said the long-term social and cultural effects of the age change – particularly the change for women – will likely be harder to anticipate, though they all have theories about the ramifications of the change. A prominent theory among Mormons and those who study the religion is that the lowering of age for female missionaries will prompt more women to go on missions. That could lead to a reevaluation of the role of women in the church.
“Within Mormonism, this change is huge,” Campbell said, referring to the lower age for female missionaries. “It will transform Mormonism in ways we cannot fully anticipate."
Serving a mission has historically not been as encouraged for women as it has been for men. When women had to wait until 21 to serve a mission, life often intervened in the form of marriage, careers and children, preventing many from pursuing missions. Women who served often waited until after graduation from college to serve missions, which made it more challenging for them to find husbands upon return, a problem for many since marriage is highly encouraged within the LDS faith.
Women who serve missions will now face many of the challenges that men faced under the old system, including the "gap year," preparing for a mission while in college and un-enrolling and re-entering college, sometimes at odd times. Many will likely be older than traditional-aged students, though the fact that women only serve 18 months will put them at roughly the same age as their male LDS counterparts.
But beyond logistical challenges, Campbell and others say the change could force the religion to re-evaluate the role of women in its leadership structure.
"Within the culture, the mission is a big deal," he said. "It distinguishes you as somebody who has prepared yourself to hold positions of leadership, so we might see a much large number of women who have had this experience be called upon to do stuff within the church.”
And since colleges and universities are likely to be the first home for a growing number of returned female missionaries, they will probably play host to a number of debates about the role of women within the religion.
Last year, when a number of women pushed for the ability to wear pants to church, something The New York Times deemed "a symbolic first salvo in a larger struggle over gender inequalities" in the religion, many of the women behind that effort were part of the small group of Mormon women who served missions.