With an average of 13.4 years of schooling, Jews are the most highly educated of the world’s major religious groups. Nearly all Jewish adults ages 25 and older around the world (99%) have at least some primary education, and a majority (61%) has post-secondary degrees.
This high level of education has been the case for several decades, meaning that Jewish educational gains across recent generations have been modest. The youngest cohort of Jews analyzed in the study has, on average, just 0.4 more years of schooling than the oldest cohort, while the share with higher education has increased by only 1 percentage point across the three generations in the study. In fact, the share of Jewish men with post-secondary degrees actually has declined globally, driven by trends in the United States.27
About eight-in-ten of the world’s Jews live in Israel or the U.S.28 In Israel, Jewish adults have an average of 12.0 years of schooling, while in the U.S. they average 14.7 years. Jews living outside these two countries also tend to be highly educated and, in most cases, have greater levels of attainment than their non-Jewish compatriots.
In Brazil, home to roughly 110,000 Jews in 2010, Jews average 12.5 years of schooling – nearly twice as many as non-Jewish Brazilians (6.8 years). And in South Africa, the only sub-Saharan African country with education data on Jews, members of that group average 12.0 years of schooling and 29% have post-secondary degrees, compared with an average of 7.2 years of schooling and 3% with higher education among non-Jewish South Africans.29
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. Even in Portugal, which has one of the least-educated Jewish populations (with an average of 9.0 years of schooling), 92% of Jews have some formal schooling and 58% have at least a secondary education.
There are greater discrepancies among Jews in different regions when it comes to higher education. Just under half of all Israeli Jews (46%) and three-quarters of North American Jews have post-secondary degrees. But in South Africa, fewer than three-in-ten Jewish adults (29%) have obtained this level of higher education.
Jews have a great deal of gender equality in educational attainment. Globally, Jewish men and women each have 13.4 years of schooling, on average, and 61% of both men and women have post-secondary degrees. In the youngest generation of Jews, women have a year more of schooling, on average, than men, and women are more likely than men (by 12 percentage points) to have higher education.30
Across regions, gender differences in attainment vary, but they tend to be small. In North America, Jewish women have slightly less education, on average, than Jewish men, while in Israel, Jewish women are slightly more educated than Jewish men.
Jewish educational attainment fairly stable in recent decades
Across generations in this study, Jews have seen slight gains in their already-high educational attainment. Worldwide, the youngest generation of Jews in the study (those born between 1976 and 1985) have 0.4 more years of schooling than the oldest generation (born 1936-55). The largest increase has taken place in Europe, where the youngest Jews have 14.8 years of schooling, on average, compared with 12.5 years of schooling for the oldest generation.
Sidebar: Education gap between Israeli Jews and Muslims is large but narrowing
Differences in educational attainment between Jews and Muslims in Israel are substantial. In the oldest generation in the study, Israeli Jews have an average of 11.6 years of schooling – roughly six years more than Israeli Muslims, who have, on average, 5.7 years of schooling.
But among the youngest generations, the educational attainment gap between Jews and Muslims has narrowed due to large gains among Muslims. 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). The result is a 3.7-year difference in average years of schooling between Jews and Muslims in the youngest generation.
An increase in formal schooling among Muslim women in Israel is a major factor in narrowing the gap. The share of Muslim women with no formal schooling dropped from 23% among those in the oldest generation to 4% in the youngest. (Most Muslim men and nearly all Jewish men and women in the oldest generation have at least some formal schooling.)
Israeli Jews remain far more likely than Israeli Muslims to earn post-secondary degrees, and the gap persists across generations even as higher education has increased in both groups. Among the oldest generations, 46% of Jews and 9% of Muslims have higher education – a 37-point difference. In the youngest generations, 56% of Jews and 22% of Muslims have post-secondary degrees – still a 34-point difference.
The share of Jews worldwide who have no formal schooling has decreased from 1.5% among the oldest generation to 0.5% among the youngest. The largest declines were in the Latin America-Caribbean region and in Israel (3- and 2-percentage point declines, respectively). In every region of the world, 99% of Jews in the youngest cohort in the study have at least some formal schooling.
Globally, the share of Jews with post-secondary degrees has increased by 1 percentage point across the three generations in the study, from 62% among the oldest to 63% among the youngest. But gains have been more substantial in some regions. In Europe, the share of Jews with higher education has increased by 23 percentage points across these generations, from 42% to 65%. And in Israel, the youngest generation is 10 percentage points more likely than the oldest to have a post-secondary education (56% vs. 46%).
Young Jewish women have surpassed men in educational attainment
Globally, the youngest Jewish women ages 25 and older are more highly educated than their male peers due to larger gains among women than men in nearly every region of the world. Jewish women have gained one more year of schooling, on average, across the three generations in the study; the oldest cohort has an average of 13.2 years of schooling, and the youngest has 14.2 years. Men’s attainment, meanwhile, has remained relatively stable across generations (the oldest Jewish men have 13.6 years of schooling while the youngest have 13.4 years). As a result, the youngest Jewish women now have nearly a full year more of schooling (0.8 years, on average) than the youngest Jewish men.
In Israel, Jewish men and women in the oldest generation in the study had the same average levels of education. But in the youngest generation, women average a full year more of schooling. The youngest Jewish women in Europe and North America also have surpassed their male peers in this regard.
Generational changes in the Jewish gender gap are even greater in higher education. Nearly seven-in-ten of the youngest Jewish women worldwide (69%) have post-secondary degrees, up from about six-in-ten (59%) in the oldest cohort. But Jewish men have moved in the opposite direction; the share with higher education has declined across generations by 9 percentage points, from 66% in the oldest generation to 57% in the youngest. The combination of these two trends has reversed the Jewish gender gap in higher education. Whereas Jewish men are more likely to have post-secondary degrees in the oldest cohort (by 7 percentage points), Jewish women in the youngest cohort are more likely than men to have higher education – by 12 points.
The drop in the global share of Jewish men with higher education is primarily due to trends in the United States, home to 41% of the world’s total Jewish population of all ages (as of 2010). The share of Jewish men in the United States with post-secondary degrees has declined from 81% in the oldest generation to 65% in the youngest, a 17-point decrease. A number of factors are behind this decline (for more, see the sidebar below).
The gender gap in higher education also has reversed in Israel, where Jewish women have made more rapid gains than Jewish men. Among the oldest cohort of Israeli Jewish men and women, equal shares (46% each) hold post-secondary degrees. But in the youngest cohort, 50% of Jewish men and 61% of women have higher education.
Sidebar: Behind the decline in higher education among Jewish men in the United States
Although Jews are one of the most highly educated religious groups in the United States, the youngest Jewish men are less likely than the oldest Jewish men to have post-secondary degrees. The decline is substantial: Eight-in-ten Jewish men in the oldest generation (81%) have post-secondary degrees, compared with about two-thirds (65%) in the youngest generation in the study – a 17-point decrease.
Men with no religious affiliation in the United States also saw a decrease in higher educational attainment across these generations (8-point decline). And the share of Christian men with higher education decreased slightly from 37% to 34% between the oldest and youngest generations. But the decrease among Jews in the share with higher education has been more pronounced.
There are two contributing factors to the decline in U.S. Jewish men’s educational attainment. First, a larger share of U.S. Jews among the youngest generation in this study identify as Orthodox – a group that tends to be less educated than other U.S. Jews – compared with the oldest. Among the oldest generation (born 1936 to 1955), 7% of Jewish men identify as Orthodox, compared with 33% among the youngest generation (born 1976 to 1985). In addition, fewer of the youngest Orthodox Jewish men are earning post-secondary degrees: 77% of the oldest Orthodox Jewish men have higher education, compared with 37% of the youngest.
This analysis only includes, as Jews, people who identify religiously as Jewish. A previous Pew Research Center study found that a substantial share of U.S. Jews more broadly defined (about one-in-five) describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” but nonetheless say they consider themselves Jewish in other ways. These “Jews of no religion,” who tend to be highly educated, are considered as religiously unaffiliated for the purposes of this study.