OGDEN -- Weber State University's enrollment figures are down from last fall, but school officials attribute the decline not to the lowered minimum age for serving church missions, but to an improving economy that lures away older students seeking jobs.
Weber State's unofficial head count stands at 25,157, which is 1,375 fewer students than this time last year. The enrollment number will become official after it is reviewed and accepted by the state Board of Regents.
The current number represents a decline of about 5 percent from a year ago. But WSU Provost Michael Vaughan said Tuesday most students who dropped their enrollment or cut back on their hours are in the 25 to 29 age bracket.
Weber State, like other Utah universities, had been braced for a decline in traditional students, age 24 or younger, after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' October 2012 announcement it would lower the minimum missionary ages, from 19 to 18 for men, and from 21 to 19 for women.
"There was a 'missionary effect,' but it is not where we are seeing the biggest difference," Vaughan said. "It's when we break down the numbers that they can begin to tell the story."
The most significant enrollment decreases were among students age 25 and older who were attending Weber State on a part-time basis. Vaughan said traditionally, enrollment rises when job prospects are bad, and people who can't find work enroll to increase their knowledge, skills and credentials.
The opposite happens when employment opportunities are good. Vaughan said most of the individuals who left Weber State or cut back their hours likely did so because they found paying jobs, or had an opportunity to add a second job.
Vaughan said many WSU students work in the construction field, and many may have elected to keep working when their summer jobs extended into fall opportunities.
"It's good news about the economy," he said.
Vaughan said the full effect of the "missionary effect" on Weber State is not yet known, because an unknown number of young students may intend to enroll after completing missionary service, but have not alerted WSU. Other students have alerted Weber State, by registering through the university's Return to Weber page, www.weber.edu/returntoweber, which can also safeguard some scholarship opportunities.
Weber State's number of full-time equivalent students is 15,618, down from 16,662 this time last year. The full-time equivalent number is reached by dividing the total number of tuition hours being taken by the number of hours considered a full-time load. WSU's head count number is significantly higher than its full-time equivalent number because so many students attend the university on a part-time basis.
Weber State will not be hurt by losing 1,375 students, which returns enrollment to the general neighborhood of its 2011 head-count number, Vaughan said. Last year's 26,532-student enrollment was a historic high, and numbers tend to run in cycles, he said.
With improvements in the economy, Vaughan said he predicts WSU enrollment numbers will be down slightly for the next two to three years, as part of the expected cycle.
An Aug. 23 article this year in The Chronicle of Higher Education listed Weber State University as the 15th fastest growing school, based on 2001-2011 figures, in the category of public school master's institutions.
Contact reporter Nancy Van Valkenburg at 801-625-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @S_ENancyVanV.