Inside the Women's Success Center at Utah Valley University, Jessica Erickson is on track to live up to the office's name.
“I think it’s important. Women need to have a plan,” said Erickson, who just completed her freshman year.
But pretty soon, the 19-year-old will be taking a new route, one away from college and towards her church.
Next week, Erickson is expecting to learn where she will serve her 18-month mission for the Church of Latter-day Saints. It’s a move she was not even considering until the church lowered its age requirements, allowing her to leave sooner.
“I actually didn’t want to serve a mission,” explained. Erickson. “I was like refusing it for some reason. And that was the moment, right when they came out with that. I was like, ‘huh.’ And it made me actually think about it.”
In 2012, church leaders announced women would be able to begin serving their missions at 19 instead of 21. For men, the age was lowered from 19 to 18.
While the change has increased the number of missionaries serving, it has caused a decrease in the number of women enrolling in college, according to data from the Utah System of Higher Education.
“It’s had an impact for both the young men and the young women, but particularly young women. You had a couple of years of backlog of young women who could go on mission and decided to go on LDS missions,” said Higher Ed commissioner Dave Buhler.
In the fall of 2012-13, there were almost 12,000 female students, age 19, enrolled at Utah’s public universities, including Brigham Young University. In the fall of 2013-14, that number dipped to almost 9,000.
At BYU, the discrepancy was even greater among 19-year-old females. The number of enrollees went from approximately 3,000 to 1,500.
While there was a reduction in male enrollees across the board, it was not as large. According to Buhler, it appears male students would be more likely to return to college because they technically never left, as they are able to serve their mission immediately after high school.
“For young women, it’s a little more uncertain,” Buhler said. “We’re not exactly sure what they will do because this is a new phenomenon, but I suspect that many or most will enroll in college or come back to college.”
It’s something Erickson’s university is already preparing for in the future.
“We try to create an environment where they feel safe that they’re not going to lose everything they created in that year,” said Tera Prestwich, who doubles as Erickson’s mother and a center employee.
Their goal is to make the transition to and from a mission as seamless as possible. Students are allowed to take a leave without seeing any impact to their grades, scholarship or housing. Upon their return home, Prestwich hopes they will also return to school.
“If we can get them here and help them have a positive experience and graduate, it just sets the trajectory for their life that they can do so many more things,” Prestwich said. “So many more doors are open once they get that degree.”