How Many Jewish Undergraduates? :
Hillel Responds

[In response to How Many Jewish Undergraduates? published May 22, 2018.]

By Matthew E. Berger

For thousands of high school students and their parents, the Hillel College Guide serves as a valuable resource in the college search process. The information provided in our guide, both in print and online, helps prospective college students gain an objective perspective of what Jewish life is like on various campuses and helps them determine which community may be right for them.

Hillel knows that Jewish life on campus is made up of much more than numbers. Some of the most dynamic and exciting Jewish campus populations are found in smaller schools or non-traditional destinations. Our College Guide provides information on study and travel opportunities, the availability of kosher food, Jewish studies programming and the presence of Jewish Agency for Israel fellows, among other metrics. Taken together, this information can help parents and students understand the full scope of Jewish life on campus.

The Jewish population data in the Hillel College Guide is listed as an estimated figure, based on various publicly available sources. Unfortunately, most colleges no longer share information on student religious affiliation and fewer students are designating a religion in their application forms. Our data is based largely on the number of students who provide their contact information to Hillel or engage at least once with our programming. Hillel also relies on a variety of estimated practices, including gleaning information from the university and local Jewish community, as well as survey data. As Dr. Saxe noted, we adjusted figures at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard when more reliable data was made available.

Michigan Hillel, for example, ended the year with more than 6,000 undergraduate students in its database by utilizing information from their University, campus partners, students, parents and alumni, and tracking students who participated in Hillel programming (not all Jewish). It knew its estimate of Jewish undergraduates had remained constant at 4,500 for 10 years, even though the total number of undergraduate students had increased from 26,000 to 30,000 in the last decade. Taking into account the number of non-Jewish undergraduate students that participate in its programming and human error, they increased their estimate of Jewish undergraduates from 4,500 to 5,200 students, which they believe is a conservative estimate.

Hillels utilize progressive definitions to define who is part of our community, including many who might not identify themselves as Jewish on a survey. The Hillel at the University of Florida includes in its estimate all students who are deemed eligible for Birthright Israel. Given that nearly 2,000 UF students travel on Birthright over a four-year period, a 2,300 total Jewish student population is inconsistent with the national percentage of students who go on Birthright.

Hillel’s focus is on increasing the number of students who engage in significant Jewish experiences in college. We want to reach 70 percent of estimated Jewish undergraduates at least one time, because we know that even one interaction increases Jewish outcomes. And we seek to engage 30 percent of Jewish undergraduates six or more times or through a high-impact experience, such as Birthright Israel or our Jewish Learning Fellowship, to ensure the most significant impact on a student’s Jewish future.

Through our Measuring Excellence campaign, more than 100 Hillels are are on their way to achieving those goals by 2020. Last academic year, professionally staffed Hillels engaged more than 101,000 students once, and 40,000 students six or more times.

We welcome all efforts to garner a complete and accurate assessment of Jewish life on the more than 550 campuses that Hillel serves in North America and and will continue to work with community partners to provide as much information as possible, so parents and students can choose the college that’s right for them.

Matthew E. Berger is Vice President of Communications for Hillel International.