Where Have All the Students Gone? Undergraduate Enrollments in Decline

Reports attribute the decline to a smaller amount of college-aged non-ultra-Orthodox Jews

Lior Dattel
Lior Dattel
Students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Credit: Tess Scheflan
Lior Dattel
Lior Dattel

The number of students registered for bachelor’s degrees in Israel is entering its fifth year of decline, as universities and colleges open for the fall semester next week.

This comes after 20 years of steady growth.

The Council for Higher Education has been attempting to stem and reverse the decline, with limited success.

The decline in enrollment was forecasted years in advance, due to a decrease in the number of college-age non-Haredi Israeli Jews of the right age. The Council for Higher Education has for years sought to make degree programs more accessible to Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews. The program targeting Arabs has been a success, but programs to bring young Haredim into universities and colleges have undershot their goals.

Israel is considered one of the most educated members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, but this could change if enrollments continue to decline.

Enrollment has stalled or declined at all Israeli institutions of higher education.

This is likely to impede efforts to reduce inequality and to affect the economy. According to OECD figures, Israelis with a bachelor’s degree earn 39% more than those with only a high school diploma, while those with a master’s earn 116% more.

It will also harm the institutions, whose state funding is linked to enrollment numbers. Public and private colleges, where some 60% of Israeli students study, are likely to be hardest hit. Universities, which are funded based on their research activity, will feel less of an impact.

Some colleges are likely to wind up in financial crises as a result, say Council for Higher Education sources. In the past few years three colleges, two public and one private, have closed for financial reasons.

The only institutions that have seen a significant increase in enrollment over the years are teaching colleges. Since 2012, the number of students studying for a bachelor’s in education has increased 30%, thanks to lowered admission criteria, including forgoing the requirement that students complete the psychometric exams. Likewise, increased teacher salaries over the previous decade has drawn more people into the field.

However, if it weren’t for the teaching colleges, the trend in higher education as a whole would likely be even more pronounced.

Private colleges, some of charge tens of thousands of shekels a year, are also facing difficulties. This comes after a 50% increase in their student bodies over the past decade.

As of next week, 306,600 students will be studying in institutions of higher education, which is 1,000 fewer than in 2007. Of them, 230,800 will be studying for bachelor’s degrees, some 100 fewer than in the 2017-18 academic year and 7,000 fewer than in 2014. This is a 2.5% decrease since 2014.

All told, the number of students pursuing higher education has nearly doubled since 2000.

The Council for Higher Education predicted this decrease, due to demographic trends, and thus tried to make higher education more accessible to Arabs and to Haredi Jews beginning a decade ago. These communities had been underrepresented in higher education. The number of Israeli Arabs pursuing degrees doubled over the past decade, to 48,600. While enrollment figures for the ultra-Orthodox improved somewhat, to 13,000 in 2013, they are still below the targets.

Improving access for these communities has merely stemmed the slide, rather than increasing overall enrollment. Furthermore, increased enrollment in master’s programs has counterbalanced the slide in bachelor’s enrollment.

Senior officials at Israel’s universities called the trend a crisis in Israeli higher education that is already harming quality.

However, sources in higher education believe this is going to be a passing trend, due both to the increasing population as well as growing enrollment among Arabs and ultra-Orthodox. Until then, though, Israeli higher education is likely to struggle, and any future increases in enrollment are unlikely to be at the paces seen in the past two decades.

Some higher education sources blame Education Minister Naftali Bennett for focusing on higher education in Ariel and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya at the expense of public colleges in outlying areas. Others blame the Education Ministry, which has not managed to significantly increase the number of high schoolers eligible for matriculation certificates. Still others blame the universities themselves, which have not developed alternative paths to admission beyond the traditional combination of psychometric exam scores and matriculation test grades, a method that has drawn criticism.

The statistics also reveal the important role that the public colleges have played since their launch in the 1990s. They are largely responsible for making higher education available to more Israelis, particularly those living in outlying areas. The Council for Higher Education’s data indicates that 28% of undergraduates are from community’s in the bottom 40th economic percentiles, even though this accounts for only 20% of the country’s citizens.

OECD data from last month indicates that Israel has more educated young adults than the OECD average. Some 48% of people between the ages of 25 to 34 have some higher education or a degree, on par with the United States and Norway and higher than the OECD average of 44%. Yet in some countries the figure is much higher — 70% in South Korea and 60% in Canada and Japan, for instance.

However, Israel is on track to lose its status as one of the most educated developed nations, as the percentage of people between the ages of 25 and 34 with degrees is lower than that among people aged 35 to 64. Some 51% of the latter have degrees.

The OECD report also indicates that Israel spend less on its students and charges higher tuition than most European countries. It also indicates that Israelis whose parents lack degrees are underrepresented among collage and university graduates.

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