It was 1963 when Ernest Wilkinson stood before Brigham Young University’s governing board with a proposal.
The percentage of Latter-day Saints who would be able to attend the university was shrinking as the membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continued to increase. The solution, BYU’s then-leader proposed, was to create a junior college system with locations strewn across the country where students would attend for two years before transferring to BYU’s Provo campus. It was a proposal, Wilkinson argued, that would both allow the same percent of Latter-day Saints to continue attending a church-run school and prevent the university from increasing its admission standards.
The three-and-a-half hour meeting included plans to build campuses in locations such as Anaheim, Phoenix and Portland.
“Wilkinson wanted to provide every Latter-day Saint that wanted a college education the opportunity to do so through BYU,” said Gordon Daines, the chair of special collections at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library. “Yet, you have to step back though and remember the church is still really small in the '50s.”
More than 50 years later, BYU and the church’s education system are seeing parallel circumstances to Wilkinson’s tenure as BYU’s leader. With an enrollment cap set at about 30,000 students, and a church that gains about a million new members every three years, the percentage of Latter-day Saints who can obtain a church-based education is shrinking.
Today, BYU is overseen by the Church Educational System, a network that includes the Provo campus, BYU-Idaho, BYU-Hawaii, LDS Business College in downtown Salt Lake City, seminaries, institutes of religion and its newest element, BYU-Pathway Worldwide.
About 400,000 high school-aged seminary students are around the world, and 324,500 students in institutes of religion, according to numbers from the church.
Among its institutions of higher education, BYU is capped at about 30,000 students, BYU-Idaho has about 15,000 students, BYU-Hawaii has about 2,400 students and LDS Business College has about 1,300 students.
Additionally, Southern Virginia University, a Latter-day Saint-aligned institution not owned or operated by the church, saw a 50% enrollment growth over five years to reach a record of 1,035 students in 2019.
BYU-Idaho has managed its growth through the use of a three-track model, where students are assigned two trimesters to attend in order to accommodate more students on campus.
BYU is not considering a three-track model, according to Carri Jenkins, a spokeswoman for BYU. However, she said that last year the university’s board of trustees -- made up of the church’s highest officials -- authorized the university to explore moderately raising its enrollment cap.
As the church’s population grows, other questions surround its growth. The old Provo High School campus across the street from the university is owned by BYU, but the university has not announced what it plans to do with the building long term.
BYU has seen continued growth since it began offering college courses in the 1890s, according to Daines. Enrollment dropped during World War II, and then increased rapidly afterward due to the GI Bill. It dipped again after the church announced in 2012 it was lowering the required age for both male and female missionaries, and began rising again a handful of years later.
Enrollment increased five fold during Wilkinson’s tenure as president from 1951 to 1971, going from about 4,000 students to around 25,000. While Wilkinson gets credit for the growth, Daines said the groundwork was laid under his two predecessors, Howard S. McDonald and Franklin S. Harris.
Latter-day Saint students are drawn to BYU for a combination of various reasons, which include continuing a family tradition of attending, obtaining an education in a church environment and the potential to find a spouse that shares their beliefs.
The church’s theology includes the importance of obtaining an education and marrying within the faith in order to gain access to the highest levels of heaven. For decades, BYU has been seen as the destination to achieve both goals.
Daines said Wilkinson promoted the marriage angle during the 1950s.
“He played heavily on the social aspect that you could come here and find a person who believed the same as you and get married,” Daines said. “And there is still an element of that.”
BYU has drawn students from across the United States and globe to its campus. About one-third of students come from Utah and 5% are international students, according to BYU statistics.
The Anaheim plan
The LDS Church has seen growth since its beginning. Founded in 1830, it reached a million members in 1947, 2 million in 1963 and 3 million in 1971.
The church currently claims more than 16.3 million members.
Anticipating future growth -- and wanting to identify where members would be -- Ernest Wilkinson hired Howard Nielson from the Stanford Research Institute in the 1950s and formed the Bureau of Church Studies at BYU to predict how many Latter-day Saints would be university-aged in 2000, according to information in “Anticipating the Year 2000: Howard Nielson, BYU, and Statistics,” an article written by Natalie Blades and Bruce Schaalje and published in BYU Studies Quarterly in 2012.
The 1957 study identified six regions that were expected to have more than 5,000 college-aged Latter-day Saints by 1975 and 10,000 by 2000. Based on the results, Wilkinson proposed capping enrollment in Provo at 12,000 to 15,000 students, moving Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) from Rexburg to Idaho Falls and building up to 10 junior colleges.
Nielson predicted in his 1957 report that the church would reach 6.7 million members in 2000. It was actually 11.1 million, making his projection off by 80%.
“At the time, even a projection of 6.7 million seemed unrealistically optimistic,” the article reads.
Nielson’s extrapolations were off in other ways. He expected Latter-day Saints to migrate to Califironia, and projected by 1985 the church’s membership in Los Angeles would top that of Salt Lake City. In the end, Nielson overestimated California’s Latter-day Saint population by 1 million and underestimated membership in non-western states and Canadian provinces by the same amount.
The 1957 report shaped Wilkinson’s 1960 proposals for a junior college system to feed into BYU. The 1963 report Wilkinson gave to BYU’s governing body proposed limiting BYU to 15,000 upperclassmen and graduate students. It would have created eight regional junior colleges over 20 years and educated from 40,000 to 50,000 freshman and sophomore students at a time in junior colleges located in areas with high Latter-day Saint populations.
A pilot system would have included completing Ricks College, creating a junior college in Mexico City to train teachers, a campus in Anaheim and one in Phoenix. Wilkinson envisioned the Phoenix campus to be dedicated to Native American students, who he didn’t believe would spend more than two years in college.
“The new proposal is within the ability of the Church to finance -- indeed, the junior colleges will more than pay for themselves,” Wilkinson said, according to a report of the 1963 meeting with the governing board that is stored in BYU’s archives.
The junior college program, he argued, was necessary to continue providing a church education to the same percentage of Latter-day Saint students it historically had. He believed better-educated students will gain better jobs, therefore allowing them to pay more tithing to the church.
He estimated the campuses to cost between $3 million and $14 million each, with Phoenix and Anaheim on the higher end of the spectrum. But not everyone agreed with Wilkinson's calculations. During the meeting, he scoffed about a letter that was addressed to the church’s First Presidency claiming each junior college would cost $25 million. That estimate, Wilkinson said, had no basis.
The church purchased nine junior college campuses between 1957 and 1960 for about $8 million total, which included land in Idaho Falls, Salt Lake City, Portland, Phoenix, Mexico City and San Fernando, LaVerne, Anaheim and Fremont in California.
Wilkinson identified Anaheim as the “ideal location” for vocational training because of the area’s industry and population boom. In Phoenix, he expected the church to offer nursing, cosmetology, dental assistant and stenographer programs for female students, and vocational and technical training for males.
Phoenix, he reportedly said, was the perfect location to educate Native American students.
“My own judgement is that our government’s failure as respects Indian tribes has been its failure to educate them,” he said. “We can profit by the government’s bad example and furnish spiritual training in addition.”
The Anaheim campus would have included a football stadium, student center and an academic building, among other facilities, according to a report in support of the proposed Anaheim campus that is located inside BYU’s archives. The report, presented and stored on transparent slides, states that the Anaheim site would include campus housing for a few thousand students, with women’s housing listed as optional.
The campus would have included a staff of 250 and parking for 2,383 students, according to a 240-page report from 1964.
A site plan prepared in November 1963 shows the campus framed by a freeway to the north, Euclid Avenue to the east and Palma Avenue to the south. The roadways surrounding the proposed campus are today labeled as Riverside Freeway, La Palma Avenue and Euclid Street.
The area around the proposed campus now includes a community college, a hospital and is about three miles away from Disneyland.
Church vs. state
Wilkinson argued during the 1963 meeting against increasing BYU’s enrollment cap to 25,000 to 30,000 students by 1970, saying the change would be wasteful and extravagant. Increasing admissions standards, he said, would drive students to secular schools, and he didn’t believe that grades equaled ability.
His report took shots at Utah’s state schools, pointing out that the institutions didn’t require a dress code and that students were able to smoke, consume alcohol and participate in group “sex irregularities” without facing punishment.
Wilkinson argued students needed the spiritual training BYU provided, and said questions about evolution, if women should work while raising families, birth control and if “Negros” were inferior would “give trouble” in state schools and are handled in a way that would fortify strength at a church school.
“In Church junior colleges it is possible to assure proper teachings in political science, history, economics and business, etc.,” he said, according to the written report of the meeting. “We can steer clear of socialistic, statist and other doctrines inconsistent with Mormon doctrines, such as free agency.”
The plan for a junior college system was abandoned and the land was sold at a profit after a vote from the executive committee of what was then referred to as the Church Unified School System, according to the 2012 “Anticipating the Year 2000” article about the church's membership projections. Wilkinson then revised his proposal to include only the Mexico City, Anaheim, Phoenix campuses, along with Ricks College, but neither plan was ever implemented.
The plan’s death blow was finances, according to Gordon Daines, the chair of the special collections at the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU.
“It was just far more expensive, and Wilkinson may have realized it was far more expensive than any of the board members thought it was going to be,” Daines said.
In the end, the enrollment cap was increased, and remains today at about 30,000 students. Increased interested in BYU has led to admission standards increasing for the university and the Church Educational System as a whole has turned to the online BYU-Pathway Worldwide program within the last decade to help meet educational needs within the religion.