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New missionary policy impacts LDS students as they change college plans and lives

BYU sophomore Alana Smith's life took an unexpected turn Saturday morning.

Smith had a plan: finish a bachelor's degree in music and theater, and plan a wedding with her boyfriend. But, the 19-year-old coed had a nagging feeling that her plan was missing a step.

"I kept feeling like I should do some kind of mission, and I didn't know why," Smith said. "I didn't know how I would work it into leaving college."

Saturday morning, Thomas S. Monson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced changes to the church's age policy for missionary service and gave Smith the answers she was seeking. In the space of moments, she became one of an uncounted throng of LDS college students who are changing their life plans — including their college plans.

At the Saturday morning session of 182nd Semiannual General Conference, President Monson announced a lower age requirement for missionary service. All worthy young men who have graduated from high school will have the option of being recommended for missionary service at age 18, instead of 19. Young women who wish to serve missions can go at age 19, instead of 21.

A monumental shift

The seismic tremor that is reshaping young adulthood for thousands of LDS youth is rumbling its way through the church's college campuses, too, and shaking up other campuses that serve high proportions of LDS young people. College administrators are trying to figure out what the new policy will mean for their schools.

Smith knows her plan, now. She expects to leave BYU to serve a mission after this semester, though she will complete the full run of BYU's stage production of "Phantom of the Opera." Her boyfriend will wait for her to return.

"We are really serious, and we know we want to be together," Smith said. "I feel like passing up an opportunity to share this wonderful gospel with other people is something I would regret for a really long time."

Leaders at LDS church schools, and other colleges that serve LDS populations, are scrambling to figure out how the new policy will affect their enrollment.

Assessing change

"There is no doubt that the change in missionary service age will impact the university, particularly in such areas as housing and enrollment," said Brigham Young University media relations manager Todd Hollingshead. "What specifically that impact will be, however, still needs to be determined … We are confident that we will be able to continue to provide all of our students with a superb educational experience."

Currently, BYU students can defer enrollment and scholarships for missions right after high school, as long as they have been admitted as daytime, degree-seeking students, Hollingshead said. The policy is under review, however.

BYU-Idaho is looking at the possibility that a significant number of students might leave after this semester, and that next year's freshman enrollment might be reduced as a result students leaving on missions, said enrollment services managing director Rob Garrett.

"We're doing assessments, and trying to get our hands around it as best we can," Garrett said. "What it will look like, I don't know, but it will be different than it is now."

Similar issues face most of the schools affected by the announcement. A drop in enrollment in the near future seems inevitable, followed later by a bump in enrollment as the large initial crop of younger missionaries return and re-enter school.

Demographic makeup of future freshman classes could look different, as young men who went on missions right after high school return and join classes full of students just out of high school.

That won't be a significant issue at BYU-Hawaii, said Michael Johanson, the school's director of communications. The Oahu-based school draws students from gigantic swath of the Pacific Rim and Polynesia.

Because of the distance involved, many students serve missions before enrolling at BYUH to reduce the number of expensive trips across the Pacific Ocean. The 2,700 students on campus have an average age of 23, Johanson said.

New options

Johanson predicts the new policy might have a greater immediate affect on young women than young men — a thought echoed on other campuses.

That's how it looked to Alana Smith as she scrolled through Facebook entries yesterday. "Almost every single post was another girlfriend who has decided to go on a mission — instantaneously," she said. "It's awesome."

The announcement opens up tremendous opportunities for students, said LDS Business College vice president of advancement Craig Nelson.

"It will have an impact, but from our vantage point, at LDS Business College, it looks like an exciting thing. How it impacts our enrollment, and the order that students do things — I think that's yet to be seen. We'll be as interested as everybody else to see how it happens."

Challenges and opportunities

Public colleges and universities in the Intermountain West are likely to experience significant change as the result of the new missionary policy. College presidents in Utah have already started trying to assess those, and formulate plans, said Utah Commissioner of Higher Education David L. Buhler.

"When enrollment drops, that has impact on operating revenue," Buhler said. "When enrollment goes down and students aren’t there with tuition dollars, it doesn't mean a proportionate reduction in costs. We still have to pay the teachers, and the light bills. That's a thing we're going to look at carefully."

The changed policy might heighten opportunities for some students, though, by making it easier for them to get into the school of their choice, Buhler said.

National data shows that enrolling in college immediately after high school heightens educational attainment and college graduation rates, Buhler said. Utah's missionary phenomenon creates an anomaly, however.

"We like to see students in college after high school, but missions may improve the inclination to enroll in college because of the discipline, study habits, and influence of peers," he said.

"Hopefully, in the long term this will not diminish the number of LDS missionaries completing college. There were a number of messages at (LDS general) conference about how important higher education completion is for young men and women. We salute that."

At Southern Virginia University, a private college that serves LDS students on the nation's Eastern Seaboard, the campus is buzzing with the news of the changed policy, said vice-president of communications Burke Olsen.

"At a smaller institution that relies largely upon tuition, we feel changes in enrollment. If there is significant change, we will notice it," Olsen said. "But, we are thrilled for any young man or woman who can enter the mission field sooner."

SVU offers scholarships to many returned missionaries, and provides some enrollment flexibility for students returning soon after semesters have begun, Olsen said.

Changing young lives

It will take at least two years to begin understanding the changes wrought on college campuses by the new missionary policy, Buhler said. Alana Smith believes she can already predict how missionary service will affect her schooling, and the rest of her life.

"I will have the amazing opportunity to go into my junior year of college more prepared, mature, and more ready to talk to people and communicate," she said. "I want to come out of a mission and go into my profession, able to keep the gospel with me. If I can go and share the gospel with other people, I can come back and keep it with me for the rest of my life."