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College enrollments down

Sun Advocate associate editor

A dip this year was anticipated, but new LDS missionary policy has officials guessing impacts

After bidding farewell to the its largest commencement class last May, USU Eastern slid into an enrollment slump this fall.

Campus officials could see it coming a year ago. The head count of entering freshmen in 2011 was, in the words of Chancellor Joe Peterson, "disastrous."

Where the college had been signing up around 900 frosh in previous years, last year's had dropped to around 700.

To that decline, add the expected decrease in some off-campus enrollments and the result was a drop of 476 students. It was a plunge from 2,323 in 2011 to only 1,847 this year.

Full-time equivalent enrollment - the money figure that determines state funding - was down, but not as much as head count. FTE figures stood at 1,284 this year, 1,419 in 2011.

On the bright side, it looks like new enrollments have recovered some ground, and growth in some new areas show signs of promise, according to Vice Chancellor Brad King.

King noted that enrollment of junior and seniors - unheard of in the days before the merger of USU and College of Eastern Utah - is on an upswing.

However, the great unknown facing the two-year college is the impact of the new ages for missionary service announced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By lowering the age to 18 for males and 19 for females, the church made it possible for high school graduates to become missionaries immediately, instead of attending college for a year.

For a two-year college like Eastern, the challenge could be different than for a four-year school, Peterson explained.

"Two-year colleges function as a way-point between high school and something else," he said. "But now a missionary coming back from someplace like Rio De Janeiro will have to decide on spending two years at home in the parent's basement."

Quoting the words of an old song, he quipped, "How you gonna keep them down on the farm, after they've seen Paree?"

Peterson and King both said they are concerned about the impression the decline, even though temporary, might make on the legislature. The college is in line for a new building to replace its aging music and old student activity center buildings. Legislators want to invest in an entity that is growing, not one that appears to be losing ground.

While neither the chancellor nor vice chancellor can explain the cause of the enrollment dip, there are ambitious plans to get the college growing. Peterson said it qualifies as "a Big Audacious Goal but not quite a Big Hairy Audacious Goal."

They have code named it "Four in Four." That's short hand for a head count of 4,000 students in four enrollment cycles. It is ambitious because the biggest enrollment the college has ever had was around 2,900.

It has already been announced on campus, and the college expects to announce it to the community soon.

It is vital that the community know about the plan and support it, the chancellor said. "A comprehensive regional college needs its community," he declared.

The converse is also true. Peterson stated that the chief benefit of many the college brings to its community is in "bringing people in from outside our community, having them live with us, get to love us, and then either stay or leave to be our ambassadors in some other place."

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