State watchdog gives Haredi colleges failing grade over sky-high dropout rates

The government has earmarked NIS 1.7 billion for higher education among ultra-Orthodox, but most students are women pursuing education degrees, despite an overabundance of teachers

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox men walking in the rain and fog in Safed, December 18, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox men walking in the rain and fog in Safed, December 18, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

For every 100 ultra-Orthodox men who walk onto a college campus tailored for their community in pursuit of an undergraduate degree, 76 will walk away long before graduation, according to a damning state comptroller report released this week.

Since 2011, the Israeli government has invested over NIS 550 million ($153 million) and earmarked over NIS 1.1 billion ($306 million) more through 2022 for academic programs for the ultra-Orthodox community, in a blitz designed to integrate Haredim into the Israeli workforce.

The cash boost precipitated the rapid establishment of dozens of tracks of study for ultra-Orthodox men and women across the country, largely in gender-segregated settings, many of which were formed as offshoots of universities and private colleges.

But while the number of ultra-Orthodox students in college programs has nearly doubled in eight years, three-quarters of men, and over half of women, quit before obtaining their degrees, according to the ombudsman report, which underlined a series of failings.

Most students enrolled in these institutions, ombudsman Yosef Shapira said, are women pursuing studies in education, despite a surplus of teachers in the job market that has pushed an overwhelming majority of trained educators (among Haredim, 86%) to ultimately seek employment in other fields.

Ultra-Orthodox students attend a graduation ceremony at the Ono Academy’s Jerusalem branch (image capture: YouTube)

Moreover, he charged, the Council of Higher Education has neglected examining the curricula taught in these schools to ensure it meets national academic standards.

The government push sought to raise the employment levels of ultra-Orthodox men (56% of Haredi men are employed compared to 90 percent of non-Haredi Israeli Jews), and women (70% of whom are employed, compared to 80% among their non-Haredi female counterparts).

But the vast majority of those who have graduated from these programs have been women (78%), the report said, and gaps in the number of college-educated Haredim as compared to the rest of the population remain wide.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women work on computers at their desks in the Comax software company office in the central city of Holon near Tel Aviv on April 17, 2016. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

As of 2014, among those aged 25-35, just 2% of Haredi men and 8% of women had a college degree, compared to 28% of secular Jewish Israeli men and 25% of religious Jewish Israeli men, and 43% of both secular and religious Jewish Israeli women in that age group.

Among the broader population, one-third of Jewish Israelis (33%) have a college degree, according to a Pew Research Center survey from 2016. The Haredi community makes up some 11% of Israelis, and many of its male members eschew employment and secular higher education in favor of full-time Torah study.

Of 100 Haredi men who begin studies, 24 will graduate

The state comptroller report evaluated these programs from 2011 to 2018.

Before the government push in 2011, there were some 6,000 ultra-Orthodox college students in the country in a handful of gender-segregated schools tailored to the community. By the 2016-2017 academic year — when some 20 ultra-Orthodox colleges had sprung up — the figure jumped to 11,465 students, but fell short of the state’s outlined goal of 14,500, and declined by some 500 students in 2017-2018.

The number of students includes those enrolled in mandatory pre-college preparatory courses, which can last one to two years before students are admitted to their undergraduate studies. These supplementary study programs have seen high dropout rates among ultra-Orthodox men and women in recent years, the ombudsman’s report noted.

Ultra-Orthodox men study toward professional degrees at Kemach, a Jerusalem-based organization that guides Haredim through study programs and job placement. (Kemach/JTA)

The dropout trends linger among those in college, such that for a class of 100 ultra-Orthodox men pursuing an undergraduate degree, 46 will quit before even entering college, and only 24 will ultimately graduate, the report said. Among Haredi women, slightly less than half — 47% — who begin the process will complete their studies.

The comptroller attributed the trend to various factors, including difficulties in bridging educational gaps among Haredi men, most of whom do not learn any math or English after middle school (Haredi girls continue studying these subjects through high school, though not at a matriculation level); the difficulty adjusting to academic demands such as testing; and the fact that many of the Haredi students are married and parents of young children upon enrollment.

The ombudsman slammed the Council for Higher Education for failing to address the dropout rates and urging it to consider ways to combat the phenomenon.

As a result of these trends, the comptroller said, though the programs were largely aimed at folding men into the workforce, 78% of Haredi graduates are women.

And 44 percent have studied education.

An overabundance of teachers

“The lion’s share of Haredim who received an academic degree as part of the program are women who received a degree in education, a field in which there is a large surplus of Haredi teachers, and most are not employed in the education system,” wrote ombudsman Yosef Shapira.

As many as 88% of qualified ultra-Orthodox female teachers, and 63% of their male counterparts, work in other fields, the report said, citing Central Bureau of Statistics figures.

Among the ultra-Orthodox students currently attending a Haredi institution of higher education, 29% are studying education, 19% social sciences, 10% business administration and management, 10% “healthcare assistance,” 9% engineering and architecture, and 9% math, statistics, and computer science. Some 7 percent are pursuing law degrees, and another 7% other fields.

Ultra-Orthodox Children in a Jerusalem classroom, August 2009 (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox children in a Jerusalem classroom, August 2009 (Abir Sultan/Flash90)

Despite being apprised of this trend, the government task force overseeing the funding of ultra-Orthodox college programs, including the Council for Higher Education, continued to invest in teaching programs, charged Shapira.

“If so, the state is investing much of its resources to encourage women to learn a subject in which the supply far exceeds the demand,” he wrote.

What are they teaching?

The state comptroller also came down on the Council for Higher Education for failing to examine the material being taught at the ultra-Orthodox college programs to ensure it conforms to its academic standards.

Though these programs have been in existence since 2000, “until 2012, the Council for Higher Education did not examine their academic quality,” he charged.

In 2012, the council announced it would review the curricula to ensure that Haredi branches’ level of study matched that of its umbrella schools. But as of 2018, just four of the 35 ultra-Orthodox programs of study around the country underwent review, despite indications of “gaps” between the courses taught in the branches, as compared to the colleges and universities.

A step in the right direction?

Despite his withering criticism over 50 pages of his annual report, Shapira also appeared to praise the programs as a step in the right direction.

“The successful integration of Haredim in the workforce — particularly men, whose share is still too low — is a national economic interest that requires profound changes in various parts of Israeli society, including the Haredi community. It is the nature of profound change that it begins step by step, and only in hindsight can one see the distance traversed.

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira in the Knesset, December 31, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“While this report points to deficiencies in the implementation of plans to make higher education more accessible to the ultra-Orthodox, there is no doubt that steps on the way to change have already been taken. All the parties involved in these processes should monitor the progress of the programs on a regular basis, set measurable goals of performance improvement and achievements, and correct the deficiencies detailed in this report that hinder the attainment of the target set by the government.”

In response to the report, the Council for Higher Education said it would study the conclusions and was committed to raising the number of students in the ultra-Orthodox programs.

“In light of the fact that the increase in the number of Haredi students was more moderate than expected, the CHE has announced its intention to evaluate other ways to achieve its target,” it said.

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