OGDEN -- Weber State University president Chuck Wight on Monday said the decline in spring enrollment is only slight at WSU, especially when compared to some other Utah universities that have been more affected by the lowering of minimum ages to serve on missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Our spring enrollment is down seven-tenths of a percent, which is pretty close to remaining flat," Wight told the Standard-Examiner editorial board. "We are not anticipating the kind of effects that Utah Valley University will see in Utah County."
According to the Associated Press, however, over the next 2 1/2 years, Utah State projects losses of as much as $9.5 million in tuition revenue, while Weber State estimates $18 million, and Utah Valley University anticipates losing between $14 million and $19 million.
An October 2012 announcement by the LDS Church revealed the minimum mission ages had gone from 19 to 18 for men, and from 21 to 19 for women.
Wight said with the change, he's particularly concerned that young women may be less inclined to return to school to finish their education. When the minimum mission age for women was 21, many who elected to serve their church had completed their college education. Those who leave at 19 will now have their university career broken off, Wight said.
"The timing may put them in a position that if they go to college, they will be interrupted," Wight said. "When they come back, they'll have a choice between coming to school, joining the workforce or getting married. I would encourage them to finish their education."
Wight said he is less concerned about the lower age for male missionaries because they may now choose to go on missions after high school.
"Young men will return from missions and go to college continuously, but women will have an interrupted college career."
Wight noted that Weber State has already debuted a Web page, Return to Weber (www.weber.edu/returntoweber), to help departing students prepare in advance for a smooth return by officially delaying scholarships, among other things.
In Salt Lake City, Utah lawmakers moved one step closer Monday to passing a measure that would help fill the revenue gap left by students leaving on LDS missions. The legislation would allow public colleges and universities to offer in-state tuition to high-performing students from other states.
After a short discussion, the Utah House education committee unanimously passed the measure, which would allow school presidents to waive the out-of-state portion of tuition for "meritorious" students. The Utah Senate approved the bill earlier this month.
Higher education officials have projected losses in the millions over the next 21/2 years because of the lost tuition.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, said the measure gives university presidents a tool to help them avoid having to scrape the barrel to find replacement students.
"Let's go out and compete for the best and brightest," Urquhart said. "They will stay, they will create jobs, they will help our economy."
The bill, as currently written, would allow university presidents to continue to give in-state tuition to nonresident students as long as they are enrolled in the school.
When questioned why the bill doesn't sunset at any point, Urquhart said Monday that he wants to see how it plays out and if it helps bring better out-of-state students.
Utah Commissioner of Higher Education David Buhler told the committee that all eight state universities and colleges support the measure. He called it a useful and worthwhile tool, and urged the committee's support.
Enrollment is down 1 to 7 percent at eight Utah universities and colleges compared to the same time last year, according to figures from the Utah System of Higher Education and the LDS-owned and operated BYU. The only school to report an increase is the University of Utah, where enrollment is up by less than 1 percent.
Spring enrollment is down about 4 percent at the LDS-owned Brigham Young University. Utah Valley University in Orem and Utah State University, which has its main campus in Logan, report the biggest decreases in spring enrollment at 7 percent.
Colleges and universities are expecting even larger enrollment decreases in the fall semester. By that time, more prospective missionaries will have completed an application process that typically takes six months.
James Morales, vice president for student services at Utah State University, told the committee the university anticipates losing 1,900 students over the next two years. The school has a total of 26,500 students. A loss of 381 students this semester has already cost the university $1.4 million in revenues from tuition, dining plans, book store purchases and housing, he said.
The concern about the lost revenue is mainly for the short term. The same double dose of outgoing missionaries is likely to return to colleges and universities in about two years, bringing a surge in enrollment and revenue.
Urquhart told the committee that the bill wouldn't require university presidents to give out-of-state students breaks on tuition, but rather serve as an optional tool.
-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.