As he stepped onto the airport escalator Tuesday, Taylor Ogden looked like every other returning Mormon missionary eager to reconnect with his family and friends, except he was sporting a black felt, hard-brimmed sombrero, the kind worn by Chilean cowboys.

Thirty members of his family exploded into cheers. In reaction, Ogden threw his arms skyward, part triumphant return, part dramatic wave hello. A videographer for the family caught all of the joyous, tearful reunions.

Just a minute before, Jacob Byers rode that same escalator, returning from his mission in San Diego. He walked past the bedlam of a dozen excited families, retrieved his bags and only then did he find his parents standing off to the side. No massive signs, flower leis or squeals of joy, though, after a brief hug, they headed home for a nice family lunch.

Ogden and Byers are among the first group of men to take advantage of a lower LDS missionary age. They left home when they were 18 and returned two years later with only a week to acclimate before starting another life-changing experience: college.

“I can’t imagine it will be too hard,” said Byers, a thin, bespectacled man with a no-nonsense look about him.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dropped the minimum missionary ages in fall 2012; for men, it went from 19 to 18 and, for women, 21 to 19. While only a year or two difference, it represents a seismic shift for young Mormons that upends longstanding educational and marriage trends and has resulted in a surge of 26,000 additional missionaries worldwide.

Exactly how this change affects Utah’s universities remains uncertain. They saw a dramatic enrollment drop in 2013, when the equivalent of two missionary groups left at the same time: a rush of new female missionaries, along with the 18-year-old men joining the 19-year-olds already planning to go.

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