The Economist discusses young women, missions and education

The Economist magazine has a very interesting article on another side of the surge of young women going on missions. It turns out that as more young women go on missions, fewer are going to college, and the Economist says some people in Utah are concerned about this trend:

KAITLYN BOURNE, a 21-year-old student from Salt Lake City, Utah, recently returned from 18 months as a Mormon missionary in Atlanta, Georgia. Before going on her mission, she was studying a pre-medicine undergraduate degree at the University of Utah with a full scholarship. But when the Mormon church lowered the age at which young women can go on missions from 21 to 19 at the end of 2012, the idea of going consumed her. “It was a huge commitment, a really hard decision,” she says. “But after months of prayer and thinking about it, I realised I had to do it.”

Ms Bourne’s decision was hard—she had to give up her scholarship. Since returning, she has made plans to go back to university, but instead of resuming her pre-medicine course, she plans to study music at the Hawaii branch of Brigham Young, a Mormon university. Such decisions concern many Utahns. In seeking to expand spiritual opportunities for women, they fear that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may be inadvertently reducing academic ones.

I think this article in the Economist, while thought-provoking, has a fatal flaw: it ignores the biggest crisis in higher education right now, which is that going to a four-year university for a BA degree is increasingly worthless.

Let me make this abundantly clear: I support people doing whatever they want with their lives. So, if you (meaning you the potentially offended reader) want to go to school for four years to study art history or gender studies, then I say bully to you. Go for it. I would only ask that you extend the same courtesy to the woman who decides NOT to go to school and instead decides to go on a mission. Priorities can change after spending 18 months serving the Lord. Is it possible that somebody can decide not to go to school and can actually be making a *better* decision for themselves?

The educational world is changing. Significantly. It simply is not the case that going to a four-year school to get a BA is usually a good financial, spiritual or moral decision. (I think most people would have agreed it was a good decision until about a decade ago).

It is also true, as much as it hurts many people to admit, that going to a university does not mean you are necessarily “educated.” So if your goal is education, then, for many people, another route may be more appropriate.

The first point is that the on-line educational world is exploding. My daughter has worked at Starbucks for three months, and they are offering her a *free on-line degree to ASU* if she continues to work at Starbucks. Sounds like a great deal to me. But overall, on-line education seems to be an increasingly useful route for many people. What this means is that you can study for a year, go on a mission, and then easily come back to studying without losing a beat.

The second point is the growth of a usefulness of a trade school education. This article points out that you can go to trade school and get guaranteed earnings that often beat getting a BA while avoiding student loan debt. A young woman in my ward in Colorado graduated from high school and went to a trade school to learn how to be a welder. She is practically guaranteed a job after graduating making $40/hour (there is a huge demand for welders in Colorado right now, even with the downturn in the oil business).

The third point is that many of today’s universities are simply not, in many cases, the type of environment that is spiritually or morally uplifting. Universities have, in many cases, become politically correct hotbeds for the latest theories that are often directly at odds with the teachings of modern-day prophets. As a parent, I would never choose to give money to many of these universities. I know that many of my friends agree with me. As this trend continues, children are going to find it increasingly difficult to convince their parents or grandparents to help pay for college. As CS Lewis said: “Eduation without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”

If you still are not convinced that getting a four-year degree can often be counter-productive, I would urge you to read this essay in a liberal magazine that says going to an elite university turns people into “zombies.”

Many young men and women must ask themselves: is it worth going into five or six-figure debt to get a BA degree in a subject that is not marketable?

“Getting an education” does not mean going to a four-year university to study often-useless information. Some of the smartest people I know are self-taught. There is no reason to believe that a man or woman who goes on a mission cannot come back and become educated *without getting a four-year degree of some sort.* The goal in life should not be credentials. The goal in life should be to progress in things that are important from an eternal perspective, and one of these things is being educated. But note the words “being educated,” not “going to college.” They are two different things.

Let me reiterate something here: if you really want to go to college and get a BA, then I say go for it, especially if you have found a way to pay for it. Many people will be happy taking such a route. Going on a mission is not for everybody. And I would also like to point out that if you are interested in the sciences and engineering, then getting a four-year degree and then an advanced degree is a very smart choice. All of my college friends who studied the sciences at Stanford are doing quite well, thank you.

But I still say that the educational world has changed. Many people, including young women, can go on missions and still be quite well educated. Even if they don’t continue going to college.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

19 thoughts on “The Economist discusses young women, missions and education

  1. While a mission is not meant to be an education but a service and sacrifice, it will almost necessarily educate. Exposure to real poverty and the worth of souls no matter their education or material wealth is usual when people serve in any of the areas where the Church flourishes such as Africa and Central and South America. Ironically BYU is at the top of the list for return on investment by many measures. Low tuition for Church members is matched with job opportunities that keep many students from aquiring the burden of student loans.
    A degree in medicine has lost luster in recent years, particularly when the cost is considered. The young woman who chose to pursue a degree in music may have realized that quality of life involves more than amount of income.

  2. That paragraph you shared from the article made it seem like the girls *have to* go on missions. Which is not the case. I know my perspective changed after coming home and so I made some changes to my life plan. Best decision ever. I did go to college, had great experiences, learned a lot.

    And I’m glad you mentioned online education. I have always joked that I have half a master’s degree … which I do. The only way I can ever finish that is if I do online school. And even then, life has changed again, and I probably won’t finish the degree I started for something better.

  3. It’s natural that numbers of female enrollments would drop while mission numbers spike, but those numbers should even out after a few years. But if marriage ages stay roughly the same (I’m guessing 22-23), then a future LDS bride has only a limited number of years to do a mission AND college pre-marriage (graduation and enrollment rates would drop post-marriage). So it could be true that a lower mission age might lower enrollment and graduate rates of LDS sisters long term, but will probably have to wait a few years to know.

  4. I think Nate is right. It’s too early to tell. The initial surge of having 19, and 20 and 21 year-old women go on missions at the same time is just now ending. There should be a better picture after the enrollment figures for Fall 2015 are in, after all the “surge sisters” have come home from their missions and had a chance to enroll at the start of an academic year.

    Joyce hit on a key word: “perspective.” That’s something that has always been said about the elders too, especially in regards to first string/varsity college athletes who go on missions. They come home after learning there are things more important in life than college sports, and they don’t have quite the same drive and fanaticism for their sport as they did their freshman year.

  5. The truth of the matter is that unless a person is in study for the hard sciences and math, all other subjects in college are scams. Universities these days teach inside bubbles having no real world use. They don’t exist to help a person survive in life, but at best create self-replicating future professors. The excuse of teaching lifelong learners or education for education’s sake is a swamp of lies. Anyone can learn the humanities on their own by picking up books and even more so today by Internet research. People don’t need more education; they need experience.

    We need to push the idea that for most subjects learning a trade is more important and profitable than a University education. For the time and money it takes to attend University, I bet a person can learn two or more trades. Leave the humanities for after gaining usable and needed skills. Bring back apprenticeships! A shout out to Mike Rowe by the way.

  6. Any analyst will know that any time you shift behavior of a population, you will see localized changes to the prior data. It will take ten or more years to see if the localized behavior shift will result in an actual change in overall behavior.

    One challenge the young females embarking on missions face is that they might be less likely to reach out to male mentors, and their female mentors never had to face the particular challenge of interrupting the early portion of their post-secondary education. But young Mormon males have been facing this for lifetimes. So I advise our young women to network with those in their congregations who are in the profession(s) the young women plans to pursue. Learn the tips and tricks for handling the interruption, because those tips and tricks exist.

    It would be entirely appropriate, in my view, for all (men and women) tor each out to the young missionaries and mentor them regarding their future.

  7. My daughter was shocked to find after receiving a degree in Biology/Chemistry that she was applying with 500 other applicants for the same positions, which paid a whoppin’ $14/hour. No, obtaining a college degree, even in the “hard” sciences, does not guarantee the road to financial security.

  8. It seems to me a fact of life that nothing is ‘neutral’ but almost everything is either (on average, in general, to some degree) good or bad – that is good or bad but with exceptions.

    On this basis, I would have thought that men going on a mission was a good thing but women going on missions?… Well, clearly it is not the same (women and men are different); furthermore, I would not regard women’s missions as being a good thing in the same way that men’s are; and indeed there are probably enough hazards and problems that it might be regarded as being (on average, in general, and to a mild/moderate degree) a ‘bad’ or baddish thing.

    If this is really so, then women would be allowed to go on missions, but not encouraged to do so; or encouraged only on a different basis from men’s missions – which emphasizes that a mission ought to be (on average, with exceptions) less significant for a women than for a man.

    I suggest this as a speculation rather than a conclusion, and partly by analogy between the mission and military service – where most decent societies have tended to regard women as having a different, and more important role, than combat (i.e. motherhood) – for which they are, anyway, much less well suited by nature (on average). And by analogy with extended higher education, where it is lavishly documented that women’s higher education has the effect (on average) of making women much choosier about the educational status of a prospective husband, and less likely to marry, and to delay marriage, and more likely not to have any children (the more HE, the more these outcomes are likely).

    Clearly, and especially given modern conditions outwith CJCLDS, the main threat is that women will marry late, not marry, and only have zero or single children (by choice) – it would seem that women’s missions might, in several ways, make these adverse outcomes more likely.

    But I wonder whether a factor I have not considered above is whether women might actually be more effective than men as missionaries – in some significant way?

    We can be sure than men and women are not equally effective (because in a given situation, men and women’s behaviour is never exactly the same) – and if women are more effective than men (better at making converts, for example) maybe this effectiveness could have influenced a trend towards more women missionaries?

  9. The tacit disparagement of the value of music in our society in this Economist article is sad.

  10. And how many people ever get a chance to study music in HAWAII???!!! Talk about songs in paradise.

  11. Men are highly encouraged to serve missions, though I know of at least one man who was fit by observable standards who was told not to serve a mission when he prayed about it.

    Now that’s a burden, to obey God and not do what >90% of your righteous peers are doing.

    You may recall that some years ago President Hinckley told the men in the General Conference Priesthood Session that they were not to pressure young women to serve missions. It seems there had been some bishops and stake presidents who had been telling young women they had to serve. And this was not right.

    I had a righteous female friend who had looked forward to serving a mission since she was a young child. But when she learned of this counsel to to male leaders to stop pressuring the women to serve missions, she gave up on her plans to be a missionary. She had many sisters, many of whom served missions. Of her sisters who didn’t serve missions, this friends was the only one who gave up on serving a mission for a reason other than being already married by the age at which missionary service was deemed acceptable.

    In the larger debate about Church service and preparation, having served a mission creates a solid foundation for future Church involvement. It also creates a solid foundation for marriages in which both the man and the woman have experienced this milestone in personal service and growth. Further, we would expect to no longer see obedient men who marry shortly after returning from a mission, where the available pool of acceptable marriage partners are necessarily women who couldn’t have served a mission. Age and height are two things that are often used to sort “acceptable” from “unacceptable.”

    With the narrowing of the missionary ages for men and women, most couples who desire to “gate” prospective partners by missionary service will be able to do so, not just the men who take several years to get around to marrying someone.

    Over the long haul, I expect this change will expand the number of marriages that are based on equal levels of Church service, thereby reducing the number of marriages where a “valiant” man is marrying someone who feels they are unable to match his level of spiritual understanding, which in turn has perpetuated the idea that women are less able to understand the scriptures, Church administration, etc.

    I look forward to seeing how the future unfolds.

  12. Bruce, I’m not sure women on missions reduces the likelihood of marriage, but may actually increase it. A woman who receives a degree and is well versed in modern culture/thinking would tend to be more career focused than one who had immersed herself in the gospel culture as well as (or instead of ) academic culture. Of course I’m speaking generally, as there are always individual differences, but I can’t see how going on a mission would make you less family oriented rather than more.

    At the very least both the men and women return missionaries understand the ultimate goal (marriage/family), while its not as certain that same goal would be promoted in vocational or academic settings to the extent it was in the mission.

  13. Meg, I know you are a RM and thus the comments about spiritually mismatched marriages because of the woman not serving. I imagine this is all general, but I I I am a woman who did not serve (I received a “no” answer) and I don’t believe my husband would say we are spiritually mismatched. However, I am almost two years older than him.
    It seems the article and comments are bringing up points that will take time to realize if, in fact, they have merit.
    Although I chose not to serve, I have almost always seen benefits for those who have served. But, what I am taking out of this post is the idea that college degrees are now costing more and benefiting graduates less. My oldest is a teenaged daughter, so while I won’t choose her future for her, I am definitely interested in knowing all the options and their current benefits so that together we can make the best educated decision possible. (I say “our” decision because if she will be using parents’ money, parents will have a say in the decision)

  14. “Many tend now to defer to ‘the science’ mindset. It would be wiser to use diverse thinking tools, to reason humbly, and artfully fit the tool to the task. Much is logically true without ‘the numbers.’

    The porous border between science and the humanities must be patrolled for nonsense smuggled in either direction. Neither has a monopoly on reason. Wieseltier is logically correct. Logic dictates we need the humanities.”

  15. Joyce,

    My wife finished her master’s degree in biology a couple of years ago, online, from the University of St. Joseph in Connecticut. She was fortunate to find a mentor at a local laboratory willing to help her do research for a thesis; normally the online M.S. is a non-thesis degree, which has less cachet.

    It qualified her to teach some classes at the local community college, which she’s enjoyed.

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