Last week several Utah state legislators proposed giving “incentive funding” to those state universities who most increase the percentage and numbers of students completing their undergraduate studies and graduating in less than six years. While the goal is certainly noteworthy, because all too many Utah students do take more than six years, the remedy effectively places the blame in the wrong place and would be almost laughable, if it weren’t so tragic, because the colleges aren’t the ones to blame, not in Utah, anyway.
The population of Utah is roughly 70% LDS [Mormon], and roughly 75%-80% of all college students in Utah state universities are also LDS. Of that number close to 80% of the male LDS college students undertake a two-year mission during their “college years.” Depending on what month in which their “mission call” arrives, the male student can spend 2-3 years out of college serving his church. Roughly 30% of female students also undertake missions, which removes them from college for two years.
Add to this the fact that the head of the LDS church has made an extremely strong push for male students to get married within a year of completing their mission… and a great number do, as many as half, if the percentages observed at the local university are replicated at other Utah universities. Those married students then often have to work, not surprisingly, to support their families and their studies. This delays their completion of studies, and, in some cases, particularly for women, keeps them from even getting a degree.
The real question is just how universities and university professors are supposed to get students through the degree programs faster when religious commitments leave those students in a situation where it is either difficult or impossible to finish a four year program in six years, considering that the students are absent from 2-3 years. The university most likely to improve their “6-year graduation rate” is going to be the University of Utah, simply because it has the lowest percentage of LDS undergraduates, and in general, the most highly qualified in-state students, while the regional universities with the highest percentage of LDS students, and the greatest percentage of first-generation college students, will have the hardest time… and yet those students and colleges are the ones who are already getting far less funding from the legislature.
But then, this latest legislative “initiative” at least recognizes the problem, if pointedly ignoring the causes.