Church missions affect college go-on rates in East Idaho

East Idaho’s high school graduates go on to college at the same rate as students from the rest of the state — it just takes them years longer to get there.

Church missions slow the rate at which East Idaho students go on to some form of higher education or training, which puts them at a big disadvantage when it comes to meeting the statewide college enrollment goal of 80 percent within a 12-month period.

On average, East Idaho’s 12-month go-on rates trail the rest of the state’s by roughly 8 percent. Four years later, however, those go-on rates tick upward to match statewide levels.

“We do see a mission bump in (East Idaho’s) go-on rates several years after a particular class graduates,” said State Board of Education director of research Carson Howell.

But despite the slower start, more East Idaho students go on to earn college degrees or some form of postsecondary certification than graduates from the rest of the state, according to data compiled by the State Board.

The State Board continues to push for 80 percent college enrollment within a 12-month period. (Idaho’s 12-month go-on rate was 52 percent in 2014.) That goal poses a challenge for East Idaho districts, which serve an ever-increasing number of students who complete missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

East Idaho’s Latter-Day Saint population

East Idaho’s 13 counties have long been home to a much higher percentage of Latter-day Saints than the rest of the state, according to Census Bureau data. In 2000, more than 60 percent of East Idaho’s population identified as LDS, compared with 13 percent in the rest of the state.

Many LDS young adults delay entering college in order to go on to two-year missions. The church doesn’t require its members to serve missions — though thousands still do. And numbers in recent years have spiked.

From late 2012 to October 2013, the worldwide number of full-time LDS missionaries swelled from roughly 59,000 to over 80,000. By the end of 2014, the number surpassed 85,000 but has since settled at roughly 75,000 – still up nearly 30 percent from 2012 and steadily rising. (The number of Idaho missionaries was not made available for this story.)

This global surge followed LDS prophet Thomas S. Monson’s 2012 announcement to lower the minimum age for young women and men desiring to serve missions. Women can now serve a mission at age 19, instead of 21; men can go on a mission at age 18, instead of 19.

“I can’t provide the exact number of students leaving for missions here, but I know it is very significant in terms of our go-on rates,” said South Fremont High School principal Larry Bennett, “especially among our female students. More of them are leaving now than ever before.”

The church saw a 142 percent increase among young women signing up for missions after Monson’s announcement. Simultaneously, East Idaho’s 13 counties saw first-year go-on rates drop by 4 percentage points.

South Fremont High School, located in St. Anthony, serves about 300 students. Nearly 70 percent of Fremont County residents identified as LDS in 2000. In 2014, South Fremont’s first-year go-on rate was 24 percent, lowest in the state.

But in 2011, before the LDS church lowered its mission age, Fremont County’s go-on rates were 45 percent, much closer to the statewide rate of 50 percent.

More promising are the four-year rates — which reflect returning missionaries, and tally the number of students who are attending college or who have already received a degree. Fremont County’s rate was 41 percent, compared to a statewide rate of 39 percent.

“We really are slower out of the gates out here,” Bennett said.

East Idaho’s go-on trends

The State Board receives college enrollment and graduation data from two sources: Idaho public postsecondary institutions and the National Student Clearinghouse.

Postsecondary institutions submit data directly to the State Board, while the clearinghouse gathers enrollment and graduation records from schools throughout the country — including private institutions, such as LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University and BYU-Idaho. (Students who have opted for private schools are included in the clearinghouse report; name changes can also impact numbers provided to the State Board.)

The Board currently has long-term postsecondary progress data for two graduating cohorts: 2005 and 2011.

  • 2005: The data reveal an initial East Idaho go-on rate of 46 percent, compared with 52 percent for the rest of the state. But after four years, 42 percent of East Idaho students have graduated college or are still enrolled in college. Statewide, that figure was 41 percent. 
  • 2011: Again, East Idaho’s four-year rate surpassed the rest of the state — a 41 percent rate, compared to 40 percent statewide. The statewide first-year go-on rate was 53 percent, compared to 46 percent in East Idaho.

The State Board is awaiting four-year numbers for the graduating class of 2012. They will likely be available in October, said State Board spokesman Blake Youde.

So far, the 2012 numbers mirror the trends for the classes of 2005 and 2011. Forty-eight percent of East Idaho’s 2012 cohort enrolled in college one year after graduation, compared with the statewide figure of 57 percent. Three years later, 39 percent of East Idaho students were either still in college or graduated, compared with 41 percent for the rest of the state.

October’s numbers will also shed light on Idaho’s 2013 postsecondary progress following the LDS Church’s decision to lower its missionary age requirements.

“It will be interesting to see what those numbers say when we get them,” Youde said.

A mission culture

Blackfoot High School 2016 graduate Taylor Pearson will leave in October for his mission in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.

“I’m nervous about it,” he said, “but two years really fly by fast. It really doesn’t concern me because I know I can go to college when I get back.”

For Pearson, the challenge of learning another language and living mission rules pales in comparison to the thought of leaving home for the first time — to live in a third-world country.

Missionaries live and proselytize with a “companion” of the same gender during missions, which last two years for men and 18 months for women. Rules prohibit dating, staying out past 10 p.m. and calling home more than twice a year, on Christmas and Mother’s Day.

Some missionaries must learn a new language within three months. Many pay their own way at a cost of about $400 a month.

Pearson’s parents will fund his mission, but say their son is still sacrificing a lot to go. He’s postponing a full-ride scholarship to play football at Idaho State University.

“It’s very difficult, but deep down, I just know going on a mission is the right thing for me to do,” Pearson said.

Missions are a valuable learning tool for youths in the church, even aside from the religious aspect, said his mother, Allyson Pearson.

“Really, this is an opportunity for him to grow up even more by living on his own and doing something very difficult,” she said. “This is going to be the most beneficial way he could be spending his time for the next two years.”

Not all missionaries return to school, but many do finish

Howell noted the post-mission uptick in postsecondary numbers. But not every returning missionary enrolls in school.

Fremont High School, which had a 12-month college go-on rate of 44 percent, followed up with an 8 percent “mission bump” in 2015. But that 8 percent bump doesn’t account for all of the high school graduates who decided against college, Howell said.

The four-year go-on numbers put East Idaho schools in line with the rest of the state – but Idaho consistently ranks near the bottom in terms of nationwide go-on rates.

Still, East Idaho’s graduation rates exceed the rest of the state.

A 2015 State Board report, titled “The Facts 2015,” outlines 2013’s postsecondary degree rates. East Idaho’s 13 counties topped the state, with five of counties coming in at nearly 48 percent. In addition, six East Idaho counties had graduation rates of nearly 45 percent. Only Ada County topped the 48 percent mark.

Proximity to college campuses can be a factor. East Idaho is home to Idaho State University and BYU-Idaho, while Ada County is home to Boise State University. Areas with major universities are more likely to see more college graduates.

The State Board will continue to take a long view of college go-on trends.

“Students who enter the military, serve a church mission or delay postsecondary education following graduation will be counted when they enter or re-enter the postsecondary pipeline,” the board says in its 2015 report.

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.