Utah colleges prepare for missionaries returning to class

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah colleges and universities are preparing for the first wave of returning Mormons who took advantage of the lower age requirement for missionaries.

College campuses are likely to feel the full force of returned missionaries going back to class this fall, reported The Salt Lake Tribune (http://bit.ly/1I58M1Z ).

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced in 2012 that it was dropping the minimum age for missionaries from 21 to 19 for women and from 19 to 18 for men.

That small change upended longstanding Mormon educational and marriage trends and resulted in a surge of 26,000 additional missionaries.

It also caused a dramatic enrollment drop in 2013 for Utah universities, with young women rushing to sign up for missions and 18-year-old men joining the 19-year-olds already planning to leave.

But now that tidal wave is returning.

Jacob Byers, a thin man with glasses who left home at 18 for a mission in San Diego, met his family at the airport Tuesday and is now ready for his next life-changing experience: college.

“I can’t imagine it will be too hard,” said Byers, who is heading to Utah State University.

But schools like USU are still working out how the change in mission rules will impact them. The university hired Leslie Buxton for a new position that involves tracking students who take deferments or leaves of absence.

That mostly means Mormon missionaries.

“I was hired to recruit them to come back,” Buxton said, “and make sure their transition back is more seamless.”

Jim Mortensen, the assistant vice president for enrollment services at USU, worries that female missionaries in particular will be less likely to finish college. He’s concerned that they will come home and marry instead.

His fear is shared by State Higher Education Commissioner Dave Buhler.

“Hopefully, they’ll come back and finish,” Buhler said. “We’re hopeful. It’s something we’re going to be watching.”

But he thinks the age limit change might actually boost graduation rates for men, who won’t need to start college, take two years off and then come back.

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