There have been few bigger announcements in the past decade from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints than the one it made last Sunday--that young men could leave on missions at the age of 18, and young women at the age of 19. (The previous policy allowed young men to leave at age 19 and women to go at 21.)
The LDS Church made the decision in order to increase the number of missionaries and smooth their departure by making it possible for young men ( who make up the vast majority of missionaries) to leave on a two-year mission immediately after completing high school.
Time will tell whether this move increases the number of missionaries, and whether it has a positive impact on the number and quality of missionary work (though my bet would be yes to the first question and no to the second). But the move also raises major educational questions.
For institutions in Utah, the big question is where they will go to replace the freshmen who would have enrolled in college before leaving on a mission under the old policy, but who will now go directly into mission work from high school. Some schools (like BYU and UVU) will lose massive portions of the men in their freshmen classes.
For learning though, the questions are even bigger. The experiment that the LDS Church has undertaken is this: will young men who serve missions be more or less likely than before to go on to college? And, will those young men who go to college be more or less successful as students if they skip two years of education between high school and college?
There has been almost no discussion of this matter in the press. The only nod to it came in the Salt Lake Tribune's sports section, where coaches and student athletes both agreed that going on a mission first would make student athletes more successful as athletes.
Setting aside the tiny handful of LDS young men who are college athletes, I expect that we will see the following impacts of this policy:
1. Top students who are also active members of the LDS church will be fine in college after serving a mission.
2. Decent students who are serious about their futures will also do well in college--the maturity that they gain on a mission will bolster their self-management skills and help them do better in college.
3. Mediocre students, and those in the new college-going demographics, will be slightly less likely to go on to college, and among those who do go to college, more likely to struggle in college.
4. Students who would not have gone to college before the change will not go to college after the change either.
On number 3 above, the recent report from College Board about the levels of college preparation of SAT test takers is instructive. Only 43% of SAT test takers are prepared to succeed in college. This means that 57% of SAT test takers, (and presumably a higher proportion of those who don't take the test) aren't ready to succeed academically in college. Among that number will be many Mormon young men, who, if they serve missions, will have let at least 2 years pass between graduating high school and entering college.
The gamble the church is taking is that mission service will help young men develop positive personal and educational maturity that outweighs the losses in learning and focus that come from spending a substantial time out of school after leaving high school. That seems unlikely. But if it is the case that taking two years off from formal education makes young men more likely to succeed once they return to schooling, then the world of higher education should take notice.