Like most American students, Naamith Heiblum went to college straight out of high school. By her mid-twenties, she was deep into her doctoral studies in clinical psychology. Her younger brother Yoni, who had moved back to Israel with their parents, served three years in the army – commanding an electronic warfare unit – and then spent a year working in restaurants in New York and Israel. All before he ever set foot in a university classroom.
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According to a recent OECD study, Israelis are the oldest students in the world. The study shows that in Israel, the median age for obtaining an undergraduate degree is slightly above 27, compared with an OECD average of just over 23. The fact that army service forces Israelis to wait longer to begin their university studies, and they often push them off even further voluntarily, is by no means a deterrent.
The OECD figures also show that Israelis are among the most educated people in the world, coming in fourth place in the international ranking, with 46 percent of all adults holding an undergraduate degree. That compares with 33 percent on average in OECD countries.
Yoni Heiblum, a 30-year-old software engineer who now holds a joint degree in computer science and English literature from the Hebrew University, says he never gave a thought to what he wanted to study when he was 18. “I guess it’s because I knew I didn’t have to make a decision for a while,” he says. Commanding an electronic warfare unit in the Israel Defense Forces, he says, “I discovered things about myself that I hadn’t known before.”
Still, he says, it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about whether starting out later is a good thing or not. “Those years outside of school definitely helped me figure out what interested me and what I was good at,” he says, “ and it also matured me a lot socially. But I think every person is different, and it’s a very individual thing.”
According to Tel Aviv University Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, the former chairman of the Council for Higher Education planning and budgeting committee, Israeli students begin their higher-education studies on average six years later than their peers abroad.
“That is a huge gap,” says Trajtenberg, who serves today as a Knesset member for the Zionist Union party and is one of Israel’s most prominent economists, “and it is a gap that has been growing over the past 10 years.”
One factor behind the increasing age of first-year students in the country is the growing tendency among young Israelis to take a year off before joining the army, in order to enroll in specialized leadership-building programs. Participating in such community service programs (known as “shnat sherut”) or military preparatory programs (called “mechinot”) has become a rite of passage for many young Israelis in recent years.
Another factor, as Trajtenberg notes, is the growing number of young Israelis taking advantage of new opportunities to sign up for extra time in the army, once they have completed their required service, in exchange for salary. Add to that the expanding university applicant pool, which has come to include many weaker students who might not have considered higher education in the past and need extra time to catch up with their peers.
Almost one out of every two Israelis enrolls in university or college today, compared with barely more than 20 percent a few decades ago. But because it is not a level playing ground any longer, as Trajtenberg notes, many of these prospective students need time to close gaps. It is also very common to take off up to a year nowadays to prepare for university entrance exams, he says.
Starting undergraduate studies at a relatively advanced age has both pros and cons, says Trajtenberg. On the one hand, he says, Israeli students tend to be more mature and serious than their peers abroad. “All the drinking and partying that plagues college campuses in America – Israeli students are spared all that,” he notes. “They’re more disciplined and understand that university is not just about having fun.”
On the downside, he says, many are rushed to get on with their lives and, therefore, don’t feel they have the luxury to pursue advanced degrees. In addition, notes Trajtenberg, those who want to study advanced mathematics and physics are at a disadvantage once they’ve taken such an extended break from their schooling. “There is circumstantial evidence that those who are younger and who have been studying continuously have an edge in these very demanding disciplines,” he says.
Eyal Feder believes he has a certain disadvantage being an older student, but for different reasons. “I’ve been thinking about an academic career, but because I’m so much older than my peers abroad, I’m not as competitive,” he says.
Feder, 28, is among a select group of outstanding students studying in a special interdisciplinary program at Tel Aviv University that confers both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. He is majoring in computer science and urban planning. An officer in the elite IDF intelligence unit 8200, Feder spent five years in the military before backpacking his way through Central America on what has become an almost obligatory post-army rite for many Israelis.
Upon his return, he served for two years as executive director of a community arts and cultural center for asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv, and it was during his second year running the non-profit that he began his university studies. Starting out this late, says Feder, he doesn’t have the luxury of living off his parents, and therefore, like many Israeli students, he holds down a job while studying. “The fact that many of us work also puts us at a disadvantage because we’re not devoting ourselves full time to our studies like our peers abroad,” he notes.
On the other hand, Feder believes he wouldn’t have made the right career choice had he begun earlier. “I had no idea what I wanted to do at 18,” he says. “It was only after I began working in the non-profit that I understood that urban planning was what interested me.”
There is no empirical evidence to prove that Israeli students benefit by beginning their studies later, according to Ami Volansky, a professor of higher education at Tel Aviv University who serves as chief scientist at the Ministry of Education. Nonetheless, he says, he himself couldn’t help but wonder about the disproportionately high representation of Israelis among doctoral candidates and post-docs at America’s top universities. “I began asking university administrators why there were so many, and the answer I got was that compared to their peers, the Israelis simply stand out,” he says.
Although the conventional wisdom is that it’s best to study math and science at a young age and without interruptions, Volansky does not believe that the years spent by many Israeli outside the classroom have no value. “Many of those who excel at math and science get to use these skills of theirs in the army, where many times they even take professional courses,” he says.
In their book “Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle,” authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer suggest that the assets Israelis bring with them to the university classroom more than compensate for the deficit of advanced age. “Innovation often depends on having a different perspective,” they write. “Perspective comes from experience. Real experience also typically comes with age or maturity. But in Israel, you get experience, perspective, and maturity at a younger age, because the society jams so many transformative experiences into Israelis when they’re barely out of high school. By the time they get to college, their heads are in a different place than those of their American counterparts.”
Bob Rosenschein, the American-Israeli startup entrepreneur who founded Answers.com, notes that the Israeli university system does not offer the same liberal arts education as its American counterpart, forcing students to make their minds up about careers before even setting foot in the classroom. “On the other hand, the Israeli students come to university with a greater sense of purpose and knowing what they want to do,” he notes.
The special skills and experiences they bring to the university help assure success once they begin their formal studies, according to Professor Orit Hazzan, dean of the faculty of education in science and technology at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. “The army is a place where they develop work habits, they learn to collaborate, and they learn to communicate with people from all walks of life, not to mention the fact that many have traveled the world before starting university,” she says. “These are simply not the sort of things the average 18-year-old in America is exposed to.”
Trajtenberg, who has also taught in the United States, notes that there are benefits to teaching students with less life experience. “They do the assignments when you ask them to, they read the books on the reading list,” he says. “It’s not like the Israeli students who are always finding shortcuts.” Yet, at the same time, he notes, the Israelis have a smoother transition into the job market than their American counterparts because many of them already begin working while studying.
A third-year physiotherapy student at Tel Aviv University, Maya Gur-Arie believes she would not have made a wise career choice had she been pushed into studying at a younger age.
Like many of her youth movement friends, Gur-Arie took off a year after high school before joining the army to volunteer in a disadvantaged community. Upon completing her two years in the air force (women in Israel are required to serve two years in the military, as opposed to three for men), she traveled around South America for five months. When she returned home, she spent a year-and-a-half completing her high school matriculation exams while preparing for the psychometric exam, a requirement for admissions at all Israeli universities. At the same time, she worked as an assistant at a pre-school.
By the time Gur-Arie began her first year of university studies, she was 24. “I would never have chosen physiotherapy as my profession straight out of high school or the army,” she observes. “I knew I wanted to work with people, and I thought I might go into education, but it was during the time that I worked in the pre-school that I realized teaching wasn’t for me and that I preferred a career in therapy. Ever since I began studying at university, I am more and more convinced I made the right choice.”