Jews are world’s most educated religious group, but there’s a U.S. wrinkle

Girls class, 5th form, in the Hebrew Realgymnasium of Kaunas, Lithuania, with teacher Shalom Zvi Rachkovsky, in 1936 or 1938. Photo provided by Shulamith Z. Berger

The Pew Research Center has released a global demographic study that examines levels of educational attainment among people of different religions across the world.

The resulting headlines — “Jews are world’s most educated religious group,” crowed The Times of Israel — serve as vindication for every Jewish mother who’s been on the receiving end of exasperated teenage sighs when she’s nagged about homework.

There are, however, some interesting wrinkles within the results about Jewish education that are worth noting.

The study looked at educational data from 151 countries for adults 25 and older, and for three specific generations: people born between 1936 and 1955; between 1956 and 1975; and between 1976 and 1985.

In this way, researchers were able to identify trends in educational attainment, which was broken down into four levels according to UNESCO’s International Standard Classification of Education: no formal schooling, primary education, some secondary education and post-secondary education (aka higher education). The study also looked at the number of years of schooling.

Pew found that Jews have the highest average years of formal schooling — 13.4 — in the world; the global average is 7.7 years. Christians average 9.3 years of schooling, while “unaffiliated” — a group that includes Jews who don’t identify as religious — comes in at 8.8. Hindus and Muslims have the lowest average years of formal schooling at 5.6, while Buddhists average 7.9 years.

Researchers explain some of the discrepancies by looking at geography.

“For instance, the vast majority of the world’s Jews live in the United States and Israel — two economically developed countries with high levels of education overall,” they write. “And low levels of attainment among Hindus reflect the fact that 98 percent of Hindu adults live in the developing countries of India, Nepal and Bangladesh.”

But Jewish educational attainment goes beyond geographic factors, Pew notes. Take Jews in Brazil, for instance, who average 12.5 years of schooling — nearly twice that of non-Jewish Brazilians. Or Jews in South Africa, 29 percent of whom get post-secondary degrees compared to 3 percent of their non-Jewish South African counterparts.

“Nearly all Jews around the world have at least some formal schooling, and there is relatively little variation across countries on this measure of attainment,” Pew’s researchers wrote.

There are some slight differences, however, between North America and Israel. For example, three-quarters of North American Jews have post-secondary degrees, while only 46 percent do in Israel. Another interesting difference: In North America, Jewish women have slightly less education, on average, than Jewish men, while in Israel, Jewish women have slightly more.

Pew dedicated a special portion of its report to the narrowing education gap between Jews and Muslims in Israel. While the difference remains substantial, Israeli Muslims have made large gains, in part because young Muslim women are pursuing education in much greater numbers.

“Across three generations, Israeli Muslims gained nearly four additional years of schooling, on average (from 5.7 years to 9.5 years), compared with an increase of 1.5 years among Israeli Jews (11.6 years to 13.1 years),” researchers note. “The result is a 3.7-year difference in average years of schooling between Jews and Muslims in the youngest generation.”

In the United States, there is one group of Jews that seems to be bucking the educational attainment trend: Jewish men. There has been a “substantial decline,” according to Pew, in higher education among American Jewish men.

“Eight-in-ten Jewish men in the oldest generation (81 percent) have post-secondary degrees, compared with about two-thirds (65 percent) in the youngest generation in the study — a 17-point decrease,” they write.

While there have been other declines in male educational attainment in the U.S., none are as pronounced as that decline among Jewish men.

Pew attributes the decline, in part, to the fact that an increasing number of young people identify as Orthodox, and the Orthodox have lower educational attainment numbers.

In August 2015, Pew published “A Portrait of American Orthodox Jews,” based on its 2013 landmark survey of American Jewry.

“A third of Orthodox Jewish adults have a high school education or less, compared with just 15 percent of other Jews,” they wrote then. “And 30 percent of both Conservative and Reform Jews have post-graduate university degrees, compared with 17 percent of Orthodox Jews.”

The lower numbers were especially notable among Haredi Jews, according to Pew: “Three-in-ten Modern Orthodox Jews (29 percent) have post-graduate degrees, and an additional 36 percent have bachelor’s degrees; among Haredi Jews, just 10 percent have post-graduate degrees, and an additional 15 percent have bachelor’s degrees.”

The study reports that fewer young Orthodox men are going for traditional higher education: 77 percent of the oldest Orthodox Jewish men versus 37 percent of the younger generation.

Pew Associate Director of Research and Senior Demographer Conrad Hackett — one of the lead authors of the current study — explained the methodology that led to the somewhat surprising U.S. conclusions.

“What we do for both Israel and the U.S. is that we look at how people describe their highest degrees that they’ve attained,” he said. “If they say they have high school education, or college degree, we standardize that based on number of years that that’s expected to represent in terms of years of education. [But] if I’m an Orthodox man and I am going to yeshiva year after year, but not in pursuit of the degree — just as a vocation — that kind of education or ongoing study is not explicitly built into the calculations. If we had captured that, then Jews would be even more highly educated [in this study], and the gap that we described, where the youngest Jewish women are by some measures pulling ahead of Jewish men — the story would be somewhat different.”

Another factor that pulls the numbers down for Jewish men is the issue of religiosity.

“There’s lot a lot of people in the U.S. who consider themselves Jewish but not by religion, and most are quite highly educated but they’re not included [in the Jewish educational numbers] because they don’t identify as religious Jews,” Hackett said. “They’ve got their Ph.D., [but] they’re in a different category.”

Even with the caveats, there’s still plenty for Jewish mothers to be proud of.

Full study results can be seen at

Liz Spikol writes for the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia.

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