SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah colleges are offering tuition breaks to out-of-state students to make up for residents delaying their education to serve a proselytizing mission for the Mormon church.
Many Utah colleges have been able to check an enrollment decline that was driven by the church's decision to lower the minimum age for missionaries to as young as 18.
Utah lawmakers acted in March to protect schools from revenue losses. They gave state schools permission to offer in-state tuition rates to top students from other states.
Utah State University President Stan Albrecht called the move helpful. His school feared an enrollment drop of 1,400 students this fall but limited the decline to less than 500.
Last October, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced men could begin serving at 18, instead of 19, and women at 19, instead of 21.
Church leaders and outside scholars say the decision is leading more women to serve missions. Rather than having to leave at age 21 - when many women are about to start careers or perhaps marriages and families - Mormon women can now serve missions shortly after high school.
With more missionaries setting off at a younger age, the Utah System of Higher Education projected in January that enrollment would decline as much as 10 percent at Utah's public schools.
But Dixie State University and Snow College are among schools reporting the decline is not as severe, KSL reported.
Utah Valley University President Matthew Holland said his school will enroll 7 percent fewer students this fall, down from a loss initially estimated at 9 percent.
The 7 percent decline will likely be the greatest drop in enrollment for any public college in Utah, KSL reported.
Educators also are concerned about the number of students who start college but don't finish in two or four years. KSL said that roughly half of all students who enter college never graduate.
"Right now, Utah is No. 2 in the country for the percentage who have some college without a degree," Utah's higher-education commissioner, David Buhler, told legislators last week. "I'm not real proud of that."
Many college students are confused about how many credit hours they need to accumulate to graduate on time.
The correct figure is 15 credit-hours a semester, not 12 credit-hours, Buhler said.
State officials are trying to encourage students to take a full load of courses, saving themselves time and money over the long haul.
"Students can take 15 hours at the same price of tuition as 12 hours," Buhler said. "That is a huge advantage that I don't think a lot of students understand."
Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, agrees.
"Accumulating debt without a degree is a road to financial difficulties for a lot of people in this country," he said.