Church missions continue to drag down Idaho’s first-year college go-on rates

East Idaho educators are quick to point out that many of their students don’t go directly to college after high school because they choose to first serve two-year missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

“Church missions are huge out here,” said West Side School District superintendent Spencer Barzee. “It’s just something a lot of our kids do.”

West Side, a rural Southeast Idaho district nestled up against the Utah border, serves perhaps the most densely LDS pocket of people in the state. The district is located in Franklin County, which recorded a nearly 92 percent Mormon population in 2000, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

West Side also churns out some of the state’s lowest first-year college go-on rates, in part, because of LDS missions. Just 23 percent of the district’s 2016 graduates had enrolled in some form of postsecondary program a year after graduation, according to the State Board of Education’s latest numbers. Idaho’s average is 48 percent. (Click here for a full rundown of the state’s latest first-year go-on rates.)

Like thousands of other teens across Idaho, several of West Side High’s 2016 seniors are engaged in pursuits that don’t involve college. But like many other East Idaho schools districts, West Side’s higher proportion of mission-bound kids continually drags down its first-year go-on rates — even though many of these missionaries return and enroll in college.

At least 14 of 48 from West Side’s 2016 graduating class were on church missions when the State Board tallied and released its latest first-year go-on numbers. Which means nearly one-third of these graduates were automatically nixed from 2016’s first-year tallies.

And West Side isn’t the only East Idaho district where missions drag down first-year college go-on rates. Five of the state’s 10 districts with the lowest 2016 first-year go-on rates are clustered at or near the Utah border in East Idaho, where Mormon populations soar.

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Here’s a list of those districts, and their 2016 first-year go-on rates:

  • Oneida County (Malad): 21 percent
  • West Side (Dayton): 23 percent
  • Preston: 28 percent
  • Grace: 29 percent
  • Bear Lake: 30 percent

A 2016 Idaho Education News analysis revealed that missions similarly affected 2015’s first-year college go-on rates in districts throughout East Idaho’s 13 counties, which harbor a roughly 60 percent LDS population, compared to the rest of the state’s roughly 13 percent, according to 2000 census data.

The State Board’s latest data dump tells a similar story. In 2016, 29 of 33 East Idaho districts fell below the statewide average go-on rate of 48 percent. Ririe, West Jefferson, Idaho Falls and Aberdeen were the only ones that either met or surpassed the 2016 average. (Click here for a full rundown of 2016 go-on rates by district.)

These sluggish first-year trends can be disheartening for those hoping to see more East Idaho students immediately enroll in college, but the early numbers don’t mean fewer East Idaho teens eventually go on.

Idaho Ed News’ 2016 analysis revealed that East Idaho’s go-on rates eventually catch up to statewide averages. That’s because many East Idaho students return from two-year missions and then enroll in college.

Some state officials call this the “mission bump,” and it’s most apparent four to five years after a particular cohort graduates. For example, in 2005, State Board data revealed an initial East Idaho go-on rate of 46 percent, compared with 52 percent for the rest of the state. Both of these numbers eventually fell, due to attrition. But by 2009, 42 percent of East Idaho’s 2005 graduates had either finished college or were still enrolled, while the statewide average was 41 percent. 

Idaho saw similar trends for its 2011 graduating class.

Barzee said he sees the mission bump play out annually in his district, and suggests that Mormon missions might actually help more kids go on to college in the long run.

“I served a mission, and it played a huge role in my decision to go to college,” he said. “Many of them return and go on.”

But like districts across the state, East Idaho still has a long way to go if it hopes to reach Idaho’s long-running goal to have 60 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds hold some form of postsecondary degree.

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

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