By Mike Morales
When the Utah Legislature passed a bill in 2013 extending in-state tuition to more out-of-state residents, Utah State University officials assumed the result would be greater student diversity.
At least where the state’s dominant religion is concerned, though, that hasn’t happened.
Instead, the school — already heavily populated with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — recorded a number of out-of-state Mormon students that is greater than the university population as a whole.
According to a report by the Office of Analysis, Assessment and Accreditation at Utah State, 71.4 percent of the incoming freshmen who received a nonresident tuition waiver in the fall 2014 semester are members of the LDS church. That’s about 1.5 percentage points higher than the school’s total Mormon student population.
“The nonresident tuition waiver LDS population doesn’t appear to be much different than the rest of the student population,” said John Mortensen, the assistant vice president for enrollment services and retention at USU. “The surprising thing is that there are actually more LDS students.”
“It’s not painting the picture I thought it was going to, at least not for 2014,” Mortensen said.
The elimination of the cap on the nonresident tuition waiver was a strategy used by Utah State to respond to the enrollment impact resulting from an announcement made by LDS president Thomas S. Monson during his church’s October 2012 general conference.
The change allowed men to serve a two-year mission at the age of 18, rather than 19. Women, meanwhile, could serve at the age of 19, rather than 21.
University officials across Utah recognized they could lose a significant number of their students to missionary service and knew something had to be done to keep enrollment up. The waiver was one of the solutions supported by the Utah System of Higher Education.
According to a USHE legislative report published during the 2013 Legislative session, the bill — sponsored by Sen. Stephen Urquhart — removed the cap on the number of waivers allotted to institutions of higher education for nonresident students who meet certain academic and admission requirements. It also extended alumni legacy nonresident scholarships to the grandchildren of alumni.
This bill was passed unanimously by the Senate and with only two votes of opposition in the House. It was signed by Gov. Gary Herbert on March 21, 2013.
The first waves of missionaries who departed in response to Monson’s call are now returning to school. But the waiver remains in effect — and Utah State officials plan to keep the waiver implemented as long as they can.
“To be honest we as an institution are able to give feedback on it be we don’t make the decision to keep it or get rid of it, so that’s going to come at a state level,” said Jordan Olsen, a recruitment specialist at USU. “It’s kind of a year by year thing. So we know that we have it for this upcoming recruitment cycle, for all the students that are going to be starting this fall, they’re still eligible to receive it. For 2016 we don’t know yet.”