In recent years, more and more Haredim have been attending institutions of higher education. In the modern labor market higher levels of education are positively correlated with higher levels of employment, and a notable trend in Israel’s labor market is that the level of education has an even greater impact on wages today than in the past. When taken in tandem, this suggests that a continuation of the trend in Haredi enrollment in academic institutions could contribute significantly to reducing poverty within the Haredi community and closing gaps between Haredim and the general population, while at the same time serving as a source of growth for the Israeli economy at large. However, these results depend not only on Haredim studying in higher education, but also on their succeeding in those studies and completing their degrees.
The number of Haredim enrolling in higher education nearly tripled in six years. Between 2008 and 2014, the number of students rose from 1,122 to 3,227, of which about two-thirds are women and only a third are men. Despite this increase, the percentage of young Haredim (ages 25-35) who are studying or have studied for a bachelor’s degree is still substantially lower than in Israel’s other sectors: only 8% of Haredi men and 15% of Haredi women are pursuing or hold an academic degree.
Not only is the percentage of Haredim in academia relatively small, but it is actually overstated. This is due to the fact that National Religious students who studied in schools that are officially registered under Haredi supervision are included in this figure – despite the fact that they are not Haredim, do study core curriculum in high school, and behave quite differently from the mainstream Haredi population (i.e., the Hasidic, Sephardic, Lithuanian, or Chabad streams).
The trends in higher education spill over into the labor market, where Haredi men are one of two population segments (in addition to Arab Israeli women) in which employment rates, despite growing in recent years, are significantly below the rates of the other population groups.
It is important to note that this was not always the case. In the late 1970s employment rates among Haredi men were very similar to those among men in the general population, standing at about 84%, while employment rates among Haredi women stood at about 40%. Following various political and social developments, the “society of learners” emerged and employment rates changed dramatically as more men engaged in full-time religious learning in yeshivas. However, the economic circumstances faced by the younger Haredi generation today are more difficult than those faced by their parents – the first generation of the “society of learners.” There is no doubt that the need to make ends meet has driven recent changes in employment rates and higher education enrollment in the Haredi sector.
Among Haredi men enrolled in academic programs, the dropout rates are particularly high. About 58% of Haredi men pursuing an academic degree drop out either during their pre-academic preparatory program (mechina) or during the degree program itself. In other words, only about four out of every ten Haredim who pursue an academic degree end up completing their studies. In fact, when the National Religious students who attended Haredi supervised schools are removed from the equation, the dropout rate of Haredi male students rises to about 67%. This is much higher than the dropout rate among non-Haredi Jewish men (about 30%) and among Arab Israeli men (41%). It is also high in comparison to the dropout rate among Haredi women, which stands at about 33%.
There are a number of explanations for the notably high dropout rate among Haredi men. One of the main reasons is a lack of preparedness. The vast majority of male Haredi students do not learn core curriculum subjects – including math, English and sciences – during high school. In contrast, most Haredi women do learn core curriculum subjects in school as do the small group of National Religious students who attended Haredi supervised schools, and both of these groups have much lower dropout rates.
The lack of preparedness for higher education also stems from a more forgiving admissions policy, designed to ease Haredi students’ path to a degree. Over half of Haredim accepted to academic studies are accepted without a bagrut certificate (matriculation) or psychometric exam. Thus, some of the new academic institutions, and particularly the Haredi campuses, have lowered their admissions requirements in order to attract more students. However, it seems that the requirement of minimum bagrut and psychometric scores in most academic institutions is an effective screening tool, and reduces the likelihood of accepted students dropping out. Though there is also a high percentage of Haredi women who are admitted without a bagrut certificate or psychometric exam, this is misleading because a large portion of them take a set of exams similar to a partial bagrut, called the Szold Institute exams.
Another factor contributing to the high dropout rates is that male Haredi students begin their academic studies at a relatively late age (25 on average), when many are already parents of growing families. Haredi women tend to begin their studies earlier, at age 22, on average.
Improving the preparedness of Haredim to enter higher education – through formal curriculum, supplementary courses, or better preparation during pre-academic mechinot – and more financial and tutorial support for Haredi students during the course of their studies could help improve not only the enrollment rates, but also the success rates of Haredim in academia.