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Utah faces revenue gap as students go on missions

Brady Mccombs, Associated Press

FILE - In this Jan. 8, 2013 photo, Mormon missionaries walk through the halls at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. Fewer students are enrolled at nearly all of Utah’s universities and colleges this semester as the institutions begin feeling the impacts of the Mormon church’s recent lowering of the missionary age. Enrollment is down by 1-7 percent compared to the same time last year except for at the University of Utah, where enrollment is up by less than 1 percent. Colleges and universities are expecting much larger drops in enrollment in the fall semester. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah lawmakers moved one step closer Monday to passing a measure that would help fill a revenue gap left by an unprecedented exodus of students on Mormon missions by allowing public colleges and universities to offer in-state tuition to high-performing students from other states.

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, a short discussion. The Utah Senate approved the bill earlier this month.

Enrollment is down this spring at nearly all of Utah's colleges and universities, and they are expecting bigger dips in the fall. Higher education officials are projecting losses in the millions over the next 2 1/2 years due to the lost tuition.

Mission applications have doubled since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced in October it was lowering the minimum age for missionaries: from 21 to 19 for women; and from 19 to 18 for men. Now, new, younger missionaries are preparing for missions at the same time as older missionaries who were already planning to go.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, said the measure gives university presidents a tool to help them avoid having to scrap the barrel to find replacement students.

"Let's go out and compete for the best and brightest," said Urquhart. "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 non-residents 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.

David Buhler, Utah Commissioner of Higher Education, 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 1-7 percent at eight Utah universities and colleges compared to the same time last year, show 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.

Over the next 2 1/2 years, Utah State projects losses of as much as $9.5 million in tuition revenue; Weber State estimates $18 million; and Utah Valley University anticipates losing between $14 million to $19 million.

"This is a significant short term impact for the university," said James Morales, vice president for student services at Utah State University.

He 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 are likely to return to colleges and universities in about two years, bringing a surge in enrollment and revenue.

Men serve two years on Mormon missions; women go for 18 months.

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.