The combined challenge of filling in knowledge gaps during their academic studies while working and raising children makes it very difficult for Haredi students to complete their degree. What can be done to reduce the high dropout rates?

The growth in the number of Haredi students enrolled in higher education in recent years is quite astonishing. Between 2008 and 2014, the number of Haredi students in academic colleges and universities tripled and today stands at about 11,000 students – one third of whom are men.

Despite this impressive increase, the share of Haredim in higher education is still overall quite small: only 8% of Haredi men and 15% of Haredi women attend academic programs. Arab Israelis are studying at rates that are roughly double those of Haredim, and Non-Haredi Jews study, at rates at least four times greater than Haredim.

These trends spill over to the labor market as well, 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. Average household income and wages are also low in the Haredi sector relative to other population groups, which is perhaps not surprising given the impact of higher education on wages.

It is within this context that more Haredim are enrolling in higher education. But who are these Haredi students? What streams do they belong to within the Haredi world? To what degree are they succeeding and what are the main challenges they face? To answer these questions I conducted an in-depth study that cross-references official data from the Ministry of Education, academic institutions, pre-academic preparatory courses (mechinot), and the National Institute for Testing and Evaluation (which develops and administers the psychometric exams). Thus, for example, the study made it possible for the first time to categorize Haredi students by the four major Haredi streams – Hasidic, Sephardi, Lithuanian, and Chabad – according to the stream of the school they attended as teenagers.

For the purpose of the study, the Haredi population was defined as those who attended a Haredi school – that is, a school under the supervision of the Haredi education system. However, as I will explain below, a small portion of students from Haredi supervised institutions (about 5%) are essentially National Religious (Dati Leumi). This small portion, it turns out, skews the data and leads to an overestimation of the number of Haredim enrolled in higher education.

When examining the Haredi sector as one entity, the data show that about 15% of young Haredi women and about 8% of young Haredi men (ages 25-35) studied or are studying for an academic degree. However, as stated above, there are great differences in higher education trends among the various streams. Participation in academia is highest in the Chabad stream – 29% of the women and 12% of the men are enrolled. In the Hasidic stream (not including Chabad) only 3% of women and 4% of men are studying for an academic degree. Falling in between are the Sephardic stream with 14% of women and 6% of men pursuing higher education and the Lithuanian stream with 15% of women and 7% of men studying at this level. Among the National Religious who attended Haredi supervised schools the numbers are much higher – 63% of women and 38% of men studied or are studying towards an academic degree.

But to what extent are Haredi students succeeding? That is, how many of them are able to successfully complete their studies? Among the women, there is a very reasonable success rate. The combined dropout rate among Haredi women (from both academic degree programs and pre-academic preparatory programs), stands at about 33%, compared with about 25% among women in the general population. Interestingly, women from the Lithuanian stream stand out with significantly lower dropout rates than female students from the other Haredi streams. One possible explanation for this is that the role of primary breadwinner falls on women in the Lithuanian stream to a greater degree than in the other streams. Therefore, these women have a strong incentive to complete their degree in order to support their families. Another possible explanation (offered by Lithuanian female students) attributes these differences to the better quality of core curriculum teaching in Lithuanian girls’ seminars relative to those of other streams.

In comparison to Haredi women, success rates among male Haredi students are low. The combined dropout rate of Haredi men from both academic degrees and pre-academic preparatory courses is about 58% (as compared with a roughly 30% dropout rate among non-Haredi Jews). In other words, only about four out of every ten Haredim who pursue an academic degree end up completing their studies. In fact, when we remove the National Religious students who attended Haredi supervised schools from the equation, the dropout rate of Haredi male students rises to about 67%. This is a very high rate in the larger context of all those pursuing a higher degree, where the combined dropout rate stands at about 30% among non-Haredi Jewish men and at about 41% among Arab Israeli men.

Why then are the male Haredi students failing? The answer encompasses several factors. To begin with, the study led to an interesting insight: in all sectors – secular, religious, Haredi, and Arab Israeli – women have higher rates of success in academia than do men. In fact, this trend already begins in school, where girls (from all sectors) outperform the boys. This phenomenon, however, only explains part of the gap. There is more to the story, as the success gap between male and female Haredi students is larger than in any other sector.

One of the factors contributing to this gap is the relatively late age at which male Haredi students begin their studies (25 on average), an age at which most are already parents, and have significant financial responsibilities. Female Haredi students begin their academic studies at the age of 22 on average, when their families are still slightly smaller.

This fact as well cannot alone explain the huge gap in success rates between male and female Haredi students. A major contributor to the gap is the fact that most Haredi women learn core curriculum subjects – such as math and English – during high school, whereas the vast majority of male Haredi students do not learn these subjects as teenagers. Looking at the small group of National Religious students who attended Haredi schools strengthens this argument. The dropout rate among these students, who studied in schools that are officially listed under Haredi supervision but teach core curriculum subjects, is significantly lower than the dropout rates of other Haredi streams. In addition, the study shows that among non-Haredi Jews and Arab Israelis, dropout rates are very high for students without a high school education.

Still, the term “core curriculum” is too broad a concept which doesn’t provide specific enough insights regarding Haredi students’ educational weaknesses. To examine particular areas of difficulty, I compared the psychometric exam scores of Haredi students (for those who took the exam) to those of other Jewish students. This comparison reveals that in certain areas Haredi students’ performance does not fall behind the performance of non-Haredi students. On the verbal and logic sections of the exam, the average scores for Haredi and secular students are similar. For math, on the other hand, the average score for Haredi students is about seven points lower than for the secular population. However, the largest gap is in English, where the average grade for Haredi students is 20 points lower than the average for secular students.

Another factor contributing to high dropout rates is the conduct of some of the academic colleges, and particularly the private colleges – where the dropout rate for Haredi students is much higher than in public colleges. Public colleges offer Haredi students practical fields of study that enable them to integrate into high-paying industries with high demand for workers. About 52% of Haredi students in public colleges study engineering and architecture; 16% study math and computer science; 13% – business administration; and 11% – social sciences.

Private colleges however, offer fewer options, and the vast majority of their Haredi students study law and business administration (50% and 43%, respectively). These are two fields in which the labor market is already saturated. For private colleges, focusing on law and business administration is more profitable because these fields don’t have space limitations (in contrast to the sciences, for example, where capacity is limited by space in labs). Thus there is a greater incentive for private colleges to initially accept a large number of students without a serious screening process (and consequently to have higher dropout rates) because these students aren’t taking the place of other potential students. On the other hand, public colleges have a greater incentive to screen applicants and prevent dropouts, because there are a limited number of spots each year and, the higher the percentage of graduates, the higher the college’s profits.

Surveys among Haredi students show that one of the common reasons for dropping out of academic studies is disappointment in their chosen field of study – which sometimes proves to be problematic, in retrospect, in terms of generating income. For example, many Haredi students studying law discover at a later stage that the market is flooded with lawyers, the bar exams were made significantly more difficult, and finding a good internship is a serious challenge.

The performance gap between Haredi students studying at public and private colleges also demonstrates the importance of preparation prior to pursuing a degree and ongoing support during academic studies. In public colleges, admission requirements are more stringent and support (such as publicly funded tutoring hours) is more comprehensive.

In that respect, it is important to note that the vast majority of Haredi students work while pursuing their degree – similar to their peers in the general population. However, it seems that the combined challenge of filling in knowledge gaps during their studies while working and raising children makes it very difficult for Haredi students to complete their degree. Scholarships and other organized financial support for Haredi students with children could improve their rates of success.

To sum up, the fact that most Haredi students begin their academic studies at a later age, and without having studied core curriculum subjects in high school, severely impairs their ability to complete an academic degree. Without receiving proper secondary education (especially in English), their dropout rates are likely to remain high. However, supplementary courses and adequate preparation in pre-academic programs (mechinot), a more supportive framework during their degree studies (as provided by public colleges), economic support for students with children, and a wider choice of fields of study that better fit the needs of the labor market – could all significantly improve the success rates of Haredim in higher education.

Eitan Regev is an economist and senior researcher at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel. He recently completed a PhD track in the Department of Economics at Hebrew University. In recent years he has studied Haredi society extensively and published several seminal studies that help to shed light on key socioeconomic issues related to this sector.