SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Enrollment at Utah's public colleges and universities is generally steady this year and growing among Hispanic students, according to new figures released this week.
The numbers were cheered by higher education leaders who have dealt with enrollment dips since the Mormon church announced new, lowered age requirements for its missionaries.
"The main thing is that we're not continuing to decrease," said Dave Buhler. He heads up the Utah System of Higher Education, which reported Wednesday that the state's eight colleges and universities added the equivalent of 136 full-time students, a 0.12 percent increase over the same time last year.
The number of Hispanic students in the state grew by 6.6 percent, continuing growth in the number of students in that demographic, according to a tally of student enrollment in the third week of the fall semester.
"We're happy about this trend. We would like our universities and colleges to represent the populations that they serve," said Buhler, though the portion of college students who are Hispanic still lags behind the percent of Hispanic residents in the state.
Despite the state's relatively young, fast-growing population, Utah's college enrollment dropped after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced new, lower age requirements for its missionaries two years ago.
The change in the minimum age, the first since 1960, led to an historic surge of missionaries with younger missionaries joining older ones already planning to go. The 80,000 missionaries proselytizing around the world today are more than at any time in church history. Before the change, there were about 58,000 missionaries, church figures show.
About two-thirds of Utah residents are members of the LDS church, and the state's colleges braced for losses when the minimum age to depart was lowered from 21 to 19 for women and from 19 to 18 for men.
Schools didn't lose as many students as feared, but the declines were more pronounced among women, and the numbers released this week show female student numbers on Utah's college campuses are still down about 0.25 percent compared to the same time last year.
But university leaders are expecting an influx of students coming back to school after completing their missionaries starting as soon as next semester, Buhler said.
Some Mormon women are already starting to come back to college. The LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, a private school in Provo, Utah, reported that 19 percent of its female students are returned missionaries, compared with 10 percent of women two years ago.
That university, though, experienced declines for the second year in a row, posting an 11 over percent drop in the size of the student body, according to a BYU statement.
An improving economy also worked against student enrollments, with more students heading for work rather than school, Buhler said. A student headcount tally showed a decline of 0.17 percent for the state's public schools, reflecting a drop in part-time students.