Snow College in eye of a perfect Mormon missionary storm
Enrollment • Junior college, community in central Utah brace for major declines as students leave earlier for church service.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Ephraim • Nicole Osborne is reading Preach My Gospel, keeping up with a sister missionaries Facebook group and getting ready to remove a discreet purple streak from her hair before she leaves for a Mormon mission in June.

Her mother had always wanted to serve, but got married before she met the 21-year-old age requirement. Like many LDS women, she wed her beau after he returned from the mission he started at age 19.

Conditions are different for Osborne: The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lowered the missionary age to 19 for women in October. Her mother cried at the news.

"She said, 'You need to go. This is so awesome,' " Osborne said. "It still took me a long time, but I totally wanted to do it, too."

The 19-year-old from Logan is one of a sizable wave of Snow College students preparing to leave the central Utah school after the announcement.

The junior college is in the eye of a perfect missionary storm. About 90 percent of its students are LDS, higher than any other public college, and the average age is 19.9, prime for Mormon missions before and after the change that allows men to leave a year sooner and women two years earlier, said Snow President Scott Wyatt.

Unlike four-year institutions, Snow can't expect students to come back to school after completing their missions, and it's hard to attract nontraditional students to the rural campus.

Snow officials predict a drop of up to 750 students in the fall, or about 20 percent of its student body. The enrollment plunge means a $1.9 million loss in tuition dollars, or 6.6 percent of the school's overall budget, a hit that comes after years of cutbacks from the state.

And when Snow sneezes, Ephraim catches a cold. The college is the largest employer in Sanpete County, according to the Department of Workforce Services, and students support area restaurants, copy shops, grocery stores and more in the town of about 6,000 people.

"If I'm only down 20 percent this year, I'll be singing hallelujah," said Jim Boud, who counts on students to rent the apartments at Park Place, the well-appointed complex he built and runs across from campus. Though occupancy is already down, Boud said he's confident that the school can recover in two years.

"This community depends on Snow College," Boud said. "I think I can weather it. I don't know if everyone in town can."

Ephraim's main drag is lined with shops patronized by students. Roy's Pizza and Pasta is housed in a 1900s-era dance hall filled with tables, vintage gas-station memorabilia and red vinyl stools.

"We think a lot about that, and how it will affect us," said Roy Crouch, who owns the restaurant with wife Katherine. Though profits have yet to dip — he's actually gained some ground against a chain pizza shop this year — they're also making do with fewer employees. "Without Snow, I don't know what Ephraim would be like."

The college is an island of new, tan-brick buildings set in a sea of farms and ranches. Founded in 1888 as a Mormon school, it was taken over by the state during the Great Depression. The approximately 3,400 students at its Ephraim campus come for the residential community feel without the high price tag — at $2,697 a year, the school has the second-to-lowest college tuition in the state. Many study general education, but a fairly large number focus on visual arts or music, Wyatt said, a fact highlighted by new, impressive performance spaces. In the past couple of years, the school has undergone a rebranding campaign, changing its colors to blue and orange and marketing itself more aggressively.

When Wyatt first heard the age-change announcement, he was "thrilled and terrified in the same instant. … My first thought was, 'My daughter might actually go on a mission.' Then I thought, 'This is not going to be good for me.' "

Almost as soon as he walked out the door that October morning, a student approached him to say she wanted to leave for a mission. Enrollment is now down about 100 students from the same time last year, and Wyatt suspects the hit would have been bigger if local LDS institute teachers hadn't encouraged students to finish out the school year before leaving on a mission.

To cope with the looming losses, Wyatt has already offered early retirement to employees, and about 11 of the 250 faculty and staff members took it. It's nothing new, though, to a recession-era college president.

"I've laid someone off every year," he said.

But 2013-14 was supposed to be the first year without budget cuts. Instead, the enrollment decline dealt a bigger revenue drop than years of slashing by the state.

Wyatt relentlessly focuses on programs useful to students looking to transfer after graduation and those who want to earn an associate degree and find work. He's shut down programs such as commercial arts and culinary arts that were redundant or weren't producing jobs. The school's first four-year degree in music dedicates 15 percent of its curriculum to the business of music — how to get a performance job, secure an agent and assess contracts. Wyatt, who used to be an attorney, wants programs that show students what real-world work in the field is like.

"I was in law school before I thought I didn't know if I wanted to be a lawyer," Wyatt said. He also foresees more bachelor's programs in the school's future, and possibly conversion to a four-year school.

"I think it's inevitable," he said. "We need to be less of a pass-through school and more of a destination."

Student Kirsten Winther isn't sure what she'll do when she's finished with her 18-month Mormon mission (young men serve for two years). The petite 19-year-old with shoulder-length blond hair wore a stylish Peter Pan collar for a recent lunch with five other students at the school cafeteria.

Growing up, she said, "all I knew about my future was that I wanted to go on a mission."

So when she heard the lower-age announcement on her birthday, it felt like a sign. The Murray business major is headed to Tallahassee, Fla., in June.

Others, though, have a definite plan.

Riley Huefner said she'd be "almost disappointed" in herself if she didn't finish her education after returning from Little Rock, Ark. At 18 years old, AP credits and summer classes are allowing her to finish her associate degree before her mission, and she's planning to "at least" finish her bachelor's and possibly advance to graduate school.

"Education is the most important thing you can get," she said. "I'm for sure going to finish my degree."

Freshman Jacob Smith also plans to continue his education after his mission, though not at Snow. The 18-year-old from West Jordan hopes to earn a bachelor's degree, maybe in education or accounting, and is eyeing Brigham Young University after his return from the Philippines.

"I'm just excited to go. I've been looking forward to this for a long time," he said. Another year at Snow would be nice, he said, but since the school doesn't offer more than one bachelor's degree program, it makes sense to go straight to a four-year institution.

These students' focus on earning degrees is welcome news to LDS leaders, who encourage young Mormon men and women to pursue higher education.

"You must get all of the education that you possibly can," then-President Gordon B. Hinckley counseled young members in 2007. "You have a mandate from the Lord to educate your minds and your hearts and your hands."

Hinckley lauded women for seizing educational opportunities and lamented that Mormon men were lagging.

"I am grateful that women today are afforded the same opportunity to study for science, for the professions and for every other facet of human knowledge," he said. "It is plainly evident that young women are exceeding young men in pursuing educational programs. And so I say to you young men, 'Rise up and discipline yourself to take advantage of educational opportunities.' "

Even at last October's conference, after the mission-age announcement, LDS apostle D. Todd Christofferson reminded Mormon men to "do well in school and then continue your education beyond high school."

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

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