Israeli Army Fighters, Needy Soldiers to Receive Free University Education

Plan aimed at soldiers who agree to use a third of their discharge 'deposit' money for B.A. tuition; remaining funds to come from state, private donations.

IDF soldiers crossing the bridge to the Azrieli Mall near defense establishment headquarters in Tel Aviv, August 2, 2016.
Eyal Toueg

After finishing their full military service, men and women who serve in Israel Defense Forces combat units or are from underprivileged homes will be able to pursue bachelor's degree studies at university for free, according to a new plan.

The soldiers must receive an honorary discharge and agree to earmark one-third of the so-called deposit (pikadon) they receive upon leaving the army to help cover their tuition. The rest of the funding will come from the defense budget or private donations.

The new scheme, due to go into effect in the upcoming academic year, is aimed at promoting higher education and also allocating donations to the IDF from private individuals for that purpose. Rather than using philanthropy to build clinics, gyms and synagogues on army bases as in the past, for example, the contributions will henceforth be earmarked for three-year scholarships for eligible soldiers.

The changes will be instituted gradually, starting with female soldiers from underprivileged backgrounds who were discharged in July; they can apply for scholarships for the 2016-17 year immediately. Next will be soldiers who served in combat units, or are from underprivileged backgrounds, who were drafted two years ago; they will be able to ask for funds beginning in 2017.

In any case, the soldier in question must have completed his entire military service without any incidence of bad conduct.

The IDF is also changing the rules regarding use of the deposit money given to demobbed soldiers, to prioritize academic education.

When soldiers finish their service, they get two forms of financial support. One is the "military discharge grant" (ma'anak shihrur) of up to 10,000 shekels (about $2,600). This sum can be used for any purpose.

The other grant a demobbed soldier gets takes the form of a bank deposit, in his or her name. The amount can reach up to 30,000 shekels, depending on the length and nature of the soldier’s service.

The deposit has typically been earmarked for use in bettering one's life situation – by pursuing higher education, getting married, buying a home or by certain other means – and its use as such must be approved by the Defense Ministry.

Now, as part of the new scheme, if soldiers undertake to use one-third of their deposit money toward tuition for their B.A., the Defense Ministry will kick in the rest of the tuition, either from its own budget or from donations.

As for the other two-thirds of the deposit, that sum can be withdrawn only after five years.

At present, about half of all IDF soldiers who have completed their service use the deposit funds for university education. It is worthwhile noting, however, that even the maximum sum of 30,000 shekels given to a full-term combat soldier, isn’t enough to cover all the expenses of studying for a B.A.

Henceforth, soldiers will likely have up to three years, after their discharge, to make up their minds as to whether they want to study.

It is not clear whether the new plan will affect those enrolling in expensive private colleges rather than universities.

Financial assistance for underwriting degrees that take more time to complete – for instance medicine or architecture – also remains under discussion. However, the military seems to be looking favorably on engineering programs, which take four years – as long as they are at an accredited institution.

These and other topics will be discussed in detail as the project kicks in, during the months to come.