SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s flagship university will allow students to delay enrollment up to two years in the latest reaction to the lowering of the minimum age for missionaries by the Mormon church.
The University of Utah’s new deferment program gives students who have been accepted the option of waiting up to seven semesters, slightly more than two years, to start college, said Matthew Lopez, director of admissions at the university.
Students previously had to complete one semester to get a leave of absence.
The move came on the heels of an October announcement by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that it was lowering the minimum age to 18 for men and 19 for women to go on missions.
The minimum age had been 19 for men and 21 for women.
University of Utah officials had been discussing the possibility of a deferment program for several years, but the announcement by the Mormon church “put a spark to the conversation,” Lopez said.
An estimated one-third of students at the University of Utah are members of the Mormon church, Lopez said.
“It was important that we scramble really quickly,” said Lopez, referring to a Dec. 1 application deadline for freshmen for fall 2013.
Deferment requests will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. The delays can be requested for Mormon missions, military service, humanitarian missions and illness, among other things.
Mormon church spokesman Dale Jones said the move was appreciated and benefits students and the university.
The creation of the program puts the University of Utah in line with other state universities with policies to accommodate students going on missions directly out of high school.
At Brigham Young University in Provo, which is owned by the Mormon church, a deferment program has been in place for years, said BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins. It allows students to delay enrollment and scholarships out of high school, she said.
Utah State University in Logan has also had a deferment program in place for some time, said John Mortensen, assistant vice president for enrollment services.
Lowering the minimum missionary age sparked a number of missionary applications in the weeks following the announcement. Through late October, church officials said they were getting about 4,000 applications a week — up for the usual 700 a week.
There has been a particularly enthusiastic response from women, who submitted more than half of these applications, the church said.
Mormon church Elder Russell M. Nelson said the church has seen good returns when 18-year-olds are allowed to go on missions from the 48 countries outside the U.S. that have already dropped the minimum age.
Youngsters must first graduate from high school or reach an equivalent level to go on a mission. It’s the first time since 1960 the church has lowered the minimum age for missionaries.
“We hope that will also allow our youth greater flexibility in planning for their schooling, careers, marriage and military obligations,” Nelson said in October.