Despite a flurry of anecdotes suggesting that Jewish students and others may be fleeing Ivy League schools for colleges in the South, the data remain less than clear that this is happening.

As is always the case, data can only tell us about the past, so we’ll surely learn more next year. But I gave a talk on a related topic, “Have Antisemitism, Islamophobia, and Campus Politics Changed How We Choose College?” at a conference, the OESIS Allyship Against Antisemitism at Dartmouth, based on some things that we do know. What follows is a modified and shortened form of my remarks.

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Before October 7, 2023, higher education was already in an interesting moment. From Palo Alto, CA, to Bethesda, MD, to Lexington, MA, where I live, people of all stripes and sorts were asking a question: will my kids need to go to college?

This wasn’t something that just sprung up out of the ether. Over the past decade and change, enrollment in college declined significantly. And the percentage of high school graduates choosing to enroll in college after they graduate had also fallen.

What’s more, we’re just two years away in higher education from the demographic “cliff” that the K–12 system has been experiencing for roughly a decade now. This demographic decline in the number of high school graduates will particularly impact the Northeast and the Midwest. As a result, the number likely to be enrolled in college will probably decline even faster and farther.

This isn’t a COVID thing. This isn’t an October 7th thing. This is the context that higher education was entering before these events.

What’s more, the percentage of people who profess that they have confidence in higher education has fallen significantly over roughly the last decade. In 2015, over half of Americans had quite a lot or a great deal of confidence in higher education institutions. That fell to 36% by 2023, according to Gallup.

It’s almost a truism to note that the confidence in higher education has collapsed significantly among Republicans. But it’s not just Republicans. Independents’ confidence in higher education has gone down considerably, and even Democrats’ confidence has gone down over time.

It’s not just that colleges are “too woke.” It’s also that they’re too costly and too broke in many cases.

A significant number of parents and prospective students are questioning the return on investment that they get from increasingly high price tags. Many of you probably saw the article in the New York Times by Ron Lieber about the first $100,000 college, Vanderbilt University. People have taken notice. The price tags are high. And even though tuition discounting is real, the sticker price is still intimidating.

Then, when you look at the outcomes, nearly 40% of students don’t graduate from a four-year college within six years. Of those that do, 50% are underemployed after they graduate, which means they take a job that doesn’t require the degree that they just earned. Of that group, well over half remain underemployed a decade later. So the outcomes for a lot of people have driven a lot of questions.

Now, obviously, there are a lot of people who will look at the average of the data and say graduating college is the clearest ticket to the middle class. It’s the surest ticket to socioeconomic mobility. And they’re also right.

So, we are all holding these disparate facts together, and it’s causing people to just ask a lot of questions and wrestle with these conflicting realities.

And then October 7th, of course, happened. I was speaking with the president of Colorado Mesa University, John Marshall, for our Future U. podcast, and he said the following:

“In the post-October 7th world, which is I think how America has looked at these college campuses, they’re increasingly saying they feel like we’re from Mars. They feel like these campuses are not really reflective of the breadth of perspectives that you see in your neighborhood, in your dinner club, in your Little League parents. I mean, wherever it is that you’re socializing, you talk to people that you’re friends with, you socialize with, you work with, and then you see what’s happening on these college campuses and it just feels like there’s such a wide departure.”

This is on top of all of the feelings and questions that were there before.

But we should acknowledge that there’s another story. Two Jews, three opinions, as it’s said.

Based on the number of students applying, selective colleges and universities—especially those that accept less than 25% of students, which is only 59 colleges in the United States—have never been a hotter commodity.

Look at the UCLA numbers, for example. In 2000, 37,791 students applied for a class of 4,203. Just 23 years later, this past fall, the university received more than 145,000 applicants from prospective freshmen for a class that will enroll roughly 6,585 students. The admit rate fell from 29% to 12%.

In 2000, Yale University received 12,887 applications for a class of 1,352 students. In fall 2023, it received 52,250 applications for a class of roughly 1,550 students. The admit rate fell from 18.3% to 4.6%.

And yet, then there’s this other data point. Harvard actually saw its applications drop this year. There was a 17% drop in those applying early before it rebounded somewhat and applications dropped 5% in total.

The question of course is: What caused this? Is this Jewish students turning their back on Harvard? Something else? And is it a harbinger of more things to come?

Jewish sentiment on campus

The best survey data that you can find on some of these questions are likely from a Tufts professor, Eitan Hirsch. The survey data also pre-dates the recent encampments, so it likely understates the present sentiments.

But Jewish students are, indeed, reporting that they are enduring quite a bit on college campuses. Since October 7th, 36% report that they need to hide the fact that they’re Jewish to fit in on campus, up from 20% the year prior. Forty-two percent said that people will judge them negatively if they participate in Jewish activities on campus. Almost half. And when it comes to Israel, 77% report that Jewish students pay a social penalty for supporting the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.

What’s interesting is this isn’t just in their heads. According to Hirsch’s data, when you survey non-Jewish students with the question: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with someone who supports the existence of Israel as a Jewish state,” since last year, the number more than doubled from 13% to 29%. That’s almost a third of students. The percentage who avoid socializing with Jews because of their views about Israel more than tripled from 2% to 7%.

It, of course, isn’t just Jewish students who have been impacted negatively. Muslim students have been negatively impacted as well. Forty-one percent report a decline in their mental health, ability to focus on schoolwork, and feelings of alienation since October 7th. Forty-four percent of Jewish students reported the same. And both groups’ experiences stand apart, as only 15% of other students felt similarly.

So, these are significant currents on college campuses. Antisemitism is certainly on the rise. According to Hillel International, it tracked over 800 instances of antisemitism on college campuses in the fall of 2023—the most ever. And four out of 10 Jewish students report being personally targeted with antisemitic messages.

If you think about that in the “context” of the testimony of the presidents of Harvard, Penn, and MIT on Capitol Hill, they said that whether a student was personally being targeted would matter in understanding whether speech was protected or not. Well, 40% report being personally targeted. And then there are the terrifying incidents like those at UC Berkeley or at Harvard Law School where protestors “stormed Harvard Law’s main building, marched down the length of the building’s primary first-floor hallway, and blocked the hallway outside the study room where [Students Against Anti-Semitism and a visiting speaker] were hiding. Fearing a violent attack, students in the study room removed indicia of their Jewishness, such as kippot, or hid under desks.”

But will this change how they choose college?

On the one hand, given this context, you could ask, how could this not change how people are choosing college?

But to understand how it might be changing, it’s important to look at some historical data on how people make choices more broadly; and that requires us to first ground the conversation in the Jobs to Be Done Theory, which explains the set of forces that cause people to take a particular action, not what correlates with that action.

What Bob Moesta and Clayton Christensen, the creators of this theory, found consistently is that it turns out that people don’t typically choose something based on a narrow understanding of identity. Demographics can correlate with one’s actions, but rarely is it causal. Bob has done this work across dozens of industries—health care, aerospace, automotive, defense, education, consumer products, and more—and across thousands of products and services, and this finding is consistent.

What really motivates people to act is that they have some sort of problem that they are trying to solve or opportunity they want to seize—the job that they’re trying to do. The late Harvard marketing professor Theodore Leavitt used to summarize this by saying that people don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they just want a quarter-inch hole.

But even this is an imperfect understanding of why people act because it fails to ground someone’s choice in the situation or circumstance in which they find themselves. If I’m trying to make a hole in a wall in an art gallery, it’s probably got to be very precise, clean, and so forth. The type of tool that is “quality” in that circumstance is different from when I’m trying to make a hole in some storage closet in the back of my house to pull an Ethernet cable through. No one will ever see it. I don’t need it to be precise—until perhaps my wife takes a peek. But the point is—circumstance matters. And to get at circumstance you realize that the traditional ways we think of product categories or demographics mislead us.

To help illustrate, you might say that watching a movie on Netflix and watching a movie in a movie theater compete with each other, right? They’re both movies.

But it turns out that the reason my wife and I go to a movie theater one night versus deciding to stay inside and watch something on Netflix are completely different situations. We are the very same people, the very same demographics. We did not change at all. That’s a constant. But our situation did. One night, we have a babysitter and we can go out as an escape to feel like adults again away from the children. That’s a very different situation from just wanting 30 minutes to unwind at the end of the day and flipping on Netflix. Circumstance helps us understand what is a viable solution and what isn’t.

Both the product category view of the world and the demographic view of the world can mislead us. What’s important is to understand the circumstance and what the person’s definition of progress is at that point in time. Because what is impacting our choice is not a narrow understanding of who I am in a static category, but instead a dynamic understanding of what’s going on around me and what I’m trying to achieve.

To understand that, it turns out that it’s almost never one thing that causes you take an action. Instead, it’s a series of pushes of why the status quo isn’t good enough along with a series of pulls that entice you around a new solution. We call these pushes and pulls the forces of progress. Some are functional. Most are emotional and social. And it’s only when these pushes and pulls come together and overcome two sets of forces holding me back—anxieties about the new solution and the habits of the present—that someone changes behavior and “hires” something new.

When we try to understand the Jobs to Be Done that cause people to hire certain products or services, we watch people who have made the choice and taken action. We then analyze the pushes and pulls and cluster them to understand the different Jobs to Be Done—which are just statements of the progress someone is seeking in a struggling circumstance. This analysis allows us to understand what is a good or bad solution for a specific situation rather than defining something as “high quality” or “low quality” in a vacuum.

By doing this analysis, we can start to explain anomalies in the more typical work we see in the media in which marketers use demographics to try to explain behavior. In the world of politics, for example, pollsters use demographic data to try to analyze political races and decide where to invest scarce resources in persuading voters. They’ll make statements like, “On average, white males without a college degree are more likely to vote for Donald Trump than Joe Biden.” That allows campaigns to, in turn, target and reach those specific voters with specific messages. That has its uses.

But what this view of the world doesn’t do is explain the actual actions of individuals, who don’t always conform to their demographic average. It doesn’t explain the anomalies, in other words. Here’s a glaring one, for example. According to the New York Times, Trump is on track to win nearly a quarter of the Black vote in key battleground states. That means that a fifth of Black voters, who voted for Biden by a margin of 92% in 2020, could turn their back on the President.

What seems clear is that race isn’t necessarily predictive of someone’s actions. Demographics, in other words, can’t explain the anomalies, because they aren’t focused on causation.

So, the question I want to turn to is what causes people to choose college? In our research, all of which is written in the book Choosing College, we uncovered five Jobs to Be Done that cause people to enroll in a given college.

For the sake of this argument, I want to focus on just three of them.

The first Job to Be Done is what we called “Help Me Get into My Best School.” You probably know a lot of students in this one. They are all about getting into “the best” college as they define it for the sake of “getting in.” They are far less concerned with what the experience will actually be like. They want to have the classic “college experience” with the nice brick-and-mortar campus, a place with prestige or a great reputation, a place where they can reinvent themselves and meet new people, and a way to take the next logical step in their life because they have to do something after high school.

What’s interesting about this Job is that in the wake of October 7th, what the definition of “best” is, among certain individuals, is clearly starting to change. Some are questioning if the schools they thought were prestigious still are and if their reputation is still “great.” And, as we saw with the declining percentage choosing to go to college directly after high school, more students are wondering if the logical next step after high school is, indeed, college. But what’s important to note that’s underlying all these changes is that it’s not the fact that I’m Jewish that is causing me to make a specific choice here. Instead, it’s impacting the set of choices that I see on the table—and for some individuals, it’s taking some of them off the table. For other students could their definition of “best” now have changed to include campuses that strongly support Jews? That’s certainly true as well.

The second Job to Be Done we saw that causes people to enroll in college is what we call the “Help Me Do What’s Expected of Me” Job. Some of these were students who were in the Help Me Get into My Best College category, but then they didn’t get into that dream school. They felt like they still needed to go to a safety school, even though they were not particularly excited about it. But overwhelmingly, the folks who enroll in college with this Job do so because they’re trying to satisfy or obey others in their life—educators, parents, friends, and/or family. It’s this general sense of “this is what I’m expected to do.” But they are incredibly devoid of passion behind the choice. This is much more about checking the box because they can’t see any other options for what they’d do next. It’s the next logical step. And, yes, they can see that it might give them a safety net. In other words, they know it’s a good idea and that it won’t be a bad thing for them. But what’s interesting about this Job in our dataset is that 74% transferred or dropped out.

Again, though, what’s interesting right now is that the expectation in the country that college is the next logical step is changing. More students are enrolling in gap years. More students are exploring college alternatives. More students are going to trade schools. More are going directly into the workforce. And the fallout from the reaction on college campuses to the events of October 7th seems to be just throwing fuel on this fire. For many, it’s not that the aftermath is causing people to select a certain college. It seems to be taking certain things off the table.

Finally, a third Job to Be Done that we saw in the research is what we call “Help Me Get Away.” These are people who are looking to get away from their current circumstance, a hometown, a repressive relationship, or an abusive situation. It’s not a huge part of our dataset, but it’s also more than you might expect—roughly one-tenth of people. And these individuals would choose a place where they could have some sort of supportive relationship. They always had someone that was like an anchor to their current community, but otherwise, they were running away from something, more than they were moving toward something. Students with this Job enroll in college to check the box. It’s like a socially acceptable thing that they can say they’re doing next, but really, they’re going to college less because they’re excited about college and more because it gets them out of where they currently are that isn’t working for them.

In the wake of October 7th, what’s interesting about this is you see some colleges—places like Touro University, universities in Florida, and Brandeis University—making transfer an incredibly frictionless path for Jewish students. And what I think is behind that is there are a number of Jewish students who are experiencing the “Help Me Get Away” Job from their current college. It’s not so much that they’ve been dreaming about Touro University, for example, but more that they are choosing to get away from the college where they are enrolled currently. Or, in the case of the high school students, they’re crossing certain colleges off the list from the get-go.

What I think we can learn from all this is that although individuals don’t necessarily do something based on a fixed sense of identity, if we mistreat people based on a particular identity—if we abuse them or create barriers that are unjust and so forth—we can cause some of them to eliminate choices and take things off the table. And I think that’s what’s fundamentally going on. It’s not that most students are actively choosing differently right now—although for some, their definition of “best” may now include elements of Jewish life they had not previously considered. But for more of them, they are likely seeing what has happened over this academic year and eliminating a whole set of choices.

From my perspective, it’s unclear how this will play out. Many colleges have existential questions ahead of them right now. A bunch of colleges are going to disappear in the next ten years. It’s already happening.

But what I think we do know relates to what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once said: “Jews have always been the irritants of empires because of our insistence on the dignity of the individual and his or her liberty.”

One of the most poignant things I heard at the OESIS conference was from an individual who oversees the equity office at an independent school. In the context of the DEI conversation, he said DEI should be about forgetting the labels. It should instead really be about getting to know individuals. Just asking “Who are you?” to each and every individual in a school community. To make them feel seen and included.

What this ultimately points to is that if we’re really going to be inclusive, people want to be seen as individuals—with all the complicated messiness of the things they get excited about, their angst, their joys, their passions, their hobbies, their strengths, their challenges, their complicated senses of self, and their desires for progress in any given struggling circumstance. They want to be treated as the totality of these things—which is how they see themselves. Few, if any, want to be treated or viewed based on one narrow, fixed characteristic.

When I was in fourth grade at Hebrew school at Adas Israel in Washington, D.C., in Shoshana Ridberg’s class, a Holocaust survivor visited our class. She had survived a concentration camp. And she told us her story—about wearing the yellow star, her prisoner number, the incredible data collection practices of the Nazis around individuals with Jewish heritage, and so forth.

At the end of her time with us, she said that ever since that time, whenever someone asked her on a census form, or in a survey, or in an admittance form, “What race or ethnicity are you?” or “What creed are you?”—or whatever the categorization question was—she would always check “other.” And then she would write in “human being.”

That’s a lesson worth learning and remembering.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.