Thursday, October 29, 2009

That 25% figure -- Orthodox Jews in secular colleges

Recently, there was a big debate over the meaning of a study quoted in an article in the Jewish Star, which stated that 25% of Orthodox Jews attending secular colleges subsequently identified as Conservative Jews. According to the article, secular college is thus a dangerous place, and it is better to send one's kids to Touro or YU. And this was also debated on various blogs.

One commenter, Hillel, makes some insightful points, and actually read the original study. I'm going to give prominence to his words by placing them in the main text of this post.

He writes:
Re the article by Rabbi Spotler:
This is a pretty bad twisting of the data - and did any of the responders read the actual study?

The study just says 25% of those who self-identified as Orthodox (this is self-identification and has nothing to do with actual shmirat mitzvot) "changed their denominational identity while in college". That in no way demonstrates whether people became more or less observant, just how they defined themselves. As a strong hint, the study said half of them became Conservative. In all my years in secular colleges and universities, not once did I see someone who went to minyan regularly or keep strict kosher 'decide' to become Conservative. It just isn't a common occurrence - yet the survey says it happens all the time! The obvious conclusion is that the 'Orthodox' students identified in the survey are not your typical shomer shabbat/kashrut/year in Israel MO Jews, as Rabbi Spotler at least implies.

There is, however, a section of the survey dealing explicitly with observance, which Rabbi Spotler entirely neglected. That showed that overwhelmingly, students engaged in Jewish activities - student leaders - became MORE observant (55% became more observant, 21% less), while students who were 'unengaged' overwhelmingly became less observant (50% less observant, 9% more).

In other words, the lesson of the study is, if your child has a strong foundation and is engaged in Judaism, college is extremely likely to make them a better Jew
The study is available at:

The relevant points are on pages 17-18 of the survey (24-25 of the pdf file).

B'kitzur, it says kids who don't know enough about religion going into college become less religious, kids who don't know much about Israel develop pro-palestinian sympathies, etc. There ain't much by way of chiddush, but it's nice to have some (relatively) hard data.
And from another blog:
This article, blog post and the comments they have engendered have been quite an eye-opening experience.

Specifically, I have learned that a surprising number of people will make incredibly broad statements about statistics contained in a study, when they have obviously not read the study and apparently know little or nothing about statistics.

The following are a few highlights of the myriad problems with many, many of the statements made (including, incidentally, the original article):

1) What is the sample size? If the study (of over 4000 students, over 2000 Jewish students) contained responses from 8 Orthodox students, 2 of whom stopped being Orthodox, the sample size is too small to make any determination at all. If anyone had read the survey, they would see that, at most, 8% of the respondents were shomer basic hilchot shabbat. I took the liberty of contacting Drs. Sales and Saxe, and they informed me the true number of Orthodox students was likely far less than that. If we are talking about 1 or 2% of the population of the survey (and again -we have no data) this broad indictment of all secular colleges may be based on the actions of five or ten students (out of 4000 surveyed) who may or may not have been shomer halacha in the first place.

2) 25% compared to what? The original article (and many of the posts in this thread) have not been comparing apples to oranges, they have been comparing apples to nothing! We have no data as to the 'attrition rate' (however one would wish to define the term) from YU or any other institution, however religious the reputation. I'm sure people would love to think whatever they want about the identities and practices of students who attended Yeshiva X or Y, but absent hard data - and there are none - any such comparisons are useless and invalid - and intellectually dishonest. This also shows the flaw in the approach taken in the above post, since nearly all institutions have some people go 'off the derech.' Let's say at frum yeshiva X, 1% of talmidim go off the derech. Shall we tell everyone not to go there since it's like playing roulette with a 1% chance of catching a bullet?

3) What percentage of the self-identified 'Orthodox' were shomer halacha? This comment has been touched upon by R' Willig and others, but the data provide a clue. According to the survey, over 50% of students involved in Jewish life (such as attending services and eating kosher food) became MORE observant over their college career, and only 21% became less observant (33%of those 'engaged' in Jewish life became less religious, 31% more religious). By definition, anyone who is shomer halacha must be considered at least engaged, and probably a leader, under the terms of the study. However, if 25% of Orthodox Jews changed denominations (half became Conservative, the other half something else, see point 4), that would mean close to 100% overlap between denomination change and lessening observance! In other words, under that interpretation of the data, Orthodox Jews who go to secular college either become more observant or stop being Orthodox, and almost never become somewhat less observant but still consider themselves Orthodox. This is technically possible, but seems counterintuitive. A far more logical explanation is that a certain percentage of students who self-identify as Orthodox do so because of family background or because they attended an orthodox shul 3 days a year or had an Orthodox bar/bat mitzvah, but were not engaged in Jewish life or shomer halacha. Is it any surprise that after a few years at college spending time with Conservative and Reform Jews, they would feel more comfortable with that identification? And yet, their practices may well not have changed at all.

4) What does 'denomination change' mean? It is important to note that the survey never says what the change in denomination means. Half the students became Conservative - what of the rest? Did they become Reform? Reconstructionist? Buddhist? Haredi/Ultra-Orthodox? Did they retain their practices but simply reject the denominational system? I certainly agree that the most likely result is that the students became identified with a less observant denomination, but there are no data to prove this, and when we may well be dealing with a very small sample size (see point 1), the actions of just 1 or 2 students could have a huge impact.

In conclusion - read the study, learn some stats, then reach you own conclusions. But doggone it if many of the statements made in the article and these posts haven't been made without regard to the data.

One additional point about the misuse of stats in the article and this blog post:

The assumption (again, with no data) of uniform distribution. This would be remarkably unlikely.

In other words, even if the sample of Orthodox students were large enough to be significant (and there's no data supporting that) AND assuming those who self-identified as Orthodox actually practiced halacha (again, no data) AND assuming their change in denominational identity meant becoming less observant (intuitive, but again no data), in that case... we would STILL not be able to say anything about 'the effect of secular college on Orthodox Jews.'

The reason is simple - distribution was not accounted for. What if substantially all those who lost their Orthodox identity went to small liberal arts colleges in cities with small or no Orthodox populations? What if they all came from single-gender schools and were suddenly thrust into a co-ed environment, or went to a school with strict doctrines and were suddenly confronted by seminars filled with people and professors who found their opinions about dinosaurs or sacred text downright comical?

The data would still tell us nothing about the effect of 'secular college' on 'Orthodox students', but we might learn something valuable about the effect of certain specific environments on certain types of students.

It's kind of sad that this survey, which could have served as the basis for a call to study the effects of all those factors on different types of students was instead perverted into an unsupported, blunderbuss attack on all 'secular colleges. Sigh.

One final (I think), intriguing thought.

What's the 'net loss' (or gain) in terms of Orthodox Jewry on campus?

Remember, according to the survey, some 30% of students change denomination, and Reform and Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews made up at least 92%, and probably more, of the >2000 students surveyed. If even a paltry 10% changed their identity to Orthodox (and remember that over 50% of leaders and over 30% of Jewish-ly engaged students became more observant over their college careers), then a total of some 60 students became Orthodox, while substantially fewer Orthodox students lost their denomination. (The exact number depends on the unknown number of Orthodox students, which in practice could not exceed 8%)

So, a system which loses some Orthodox students and gains many more - good thing or bad?

No doubt it's a complex question, but before deciding, remember this - we already have such a system, it's called kiruv. Every year an unknown number of non-Orthodox become observant thanks to kiruv work and an unknown (but non-zero) number of Orthodox kiruv workers go off the derech. To my knowledge there is no hard data on this subject and I am quite skeptical that there ever will be. Indeed, some authorities are opposed to the kiruv system for this very reason, but many other support it. I see no reason why secular college, which appears to have a similar effect, should be treated any differently.


MDJ said...

And no one even commented on the question of whether attending secular college is a cause of becoming less frum or just correlated with it. I haven;t read the study, but it is pretty clear that there is probably some correlation between a tendency to stop being frum and a decision to attend secular college. I'm sure that this study couldn't distinguish, never mind all the other, relevant, issues the post points out.

Hillel said...

While I believe your point is correct, I think the correlation argument raises the counterpoint that a teen who has decided to, or is seriously considering, giving up observance is exactly the kind of student who should not be placed an environment that would support that decision, and that sending such a teen to a more religious environment, filled with students and teachers that could deal with the causes of the teen's decision, might cause the student to change his or her mind.

I'm not sure I agree, but with so many other, I think indefensible, objections to the improper use of the study's conclusions, I wasn't comfortable raising a point which, while I think correct, nevertheless gives rise to a fair rebuttal.

MDJ said...

You could respond with that, but you'd be begging the question. What evidence is there that sending even at risk keds to secular college raises their risk of becoming less observant. That is the question this study purports, and fails, to answer.


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