The quiet effect of the Israel-Hamas war on college admissions

By | November 13, 2023

Many Jewish and Muslim families are establishing a new set of criteria for the colleges they hope their children will attend next year.


George Washington University was one of Josh Jury’s top choices for college. His vibrant chapter of Hillel, a popular club for Jewish students, piqued the interest of the Illinois high school senior, who wants to study international relations.

Everything changed a few weeks ago, when negative reactions multiplied within the private college following the student protests against the Israel-Hamas war. According to the jury, the university’s response to the controversial incident was “truly disheartening.”

He recently decided to take a gap year between high school and college. As disagreement over war disrupts American higher educationhe’s not the only student rethinking his college plans.

In addition to the typical anxieties that the college admissions process invariably brings, many Jewish and Muslim families are now establishing a new set of criteria by which they hope their children will attend schools next year. Over the coming months, exactly how college leaders handle the ongoing conflict could have a notable impact on parents’ and students’ final choice on campus. For Jewish students in particular, the chaos can potentially accelerating a decades-long downward trend in Jewish enrollment in the country’s most selective schools, where much of the war-related controversy is concentrated.

In interviews and emails, more than a dozen Jewish parents and students told USA TODAY that they have reconsidered their lists of prospective students in recent weeks, as the war between Israel and Hamas reveals deep divisions on college campuses.

“We are completely changing the subject,” Jennifer Schultz, the mother of a Jewish 16-year-old who previously planned to attend both the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, said in an email. Both campuses have, from the perspective of some Jewish parents, delivered lukewarm responses in the middle of anti-Semitic threats.

Chaos on campus: Israel-Hamas war sparks free speech battles on U.S. college campuses

Another Illinois high school student has added several colleges to her list in recent weeks based on how those campuses have handled protests and anti-Semitism, her mother Janet Footlik wrote in an email.

“Safety and morality, which we considered a fundamental right on every campus, became the top items on his checklist,” Footlik said. “Not all schools are meeting this need or presenting a concrete plan to meet it. »

“Accounts are underway with Jewish families and within many institutions”

Perceived and explicit Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have thrown college campuses across the country into turmoil, even prompting a warning last week from the Ministry of Education remind schools that they have a legal obligation to combat discrimination or risk losing federal funding.

The alumni entered into a state of agitation towards the administrators, demanding presidents. withdraw And threaten to withhold significant donations. Students have been arrested. Faculty are divided. Four college admissions experts or guidance counselors serving Jewish students said the war impacted their students’ future colleges or became a source of anxiety for graduates’ parents seniors.

“A reckoning is being done with Jewish families and within many of these institutions,” said Naomi Steinberg, a counselor at a private college in Florida who works primarily with Jewish students and parents.

Muslim families are also alarmed. Two college counselors who work primarily with Muslim students told USA TODAY that the impact of war on campus has become a big concern for the parents they work with.

Abrar Omeish, an at-large member of the Fairfax County, Va., school board, said a Muslim high school student told him he planned to review his application and remove references to his ethnic identity and pro-activism. Palestinian.

“Kids were sincerely expressing concern that this could impact their college admissions,” Omeish said after speaking with high school students in her district who participated in the campus protests.

Farheen Khan, a guidance counselor at Pillars Preparatory Academy, an Islamic school in New Jersey, said in an email that Islamophobic slurs were directed at her and her students during visits to the college. She said that in an era of rising hate incidents, Muslim students might be safer on larger, more urban campuses rather than smaller ones.

“Islamophobia has increased significantly and, unfortunately, students and parents have had to consider safety when making decisions about four-year commitments to higher education,” she said.

“Tectonic shift” in the academic approach

Claudia Granville, the mother of Jewish high school students in Massachusetts, said her twins dropped out of applications to two colleges because they felt the statements about the war released by the schools’ various departments were anti-Semitic. She declined to specify which schools, worried that their name could have a negative impact on her children’s early decision requests.

“It’s been a tectonic shift,” she said, referring to their approach to college admissions.

Granville’s family isn’t the only one trimming its list of colleges. Lauren Cook, college dean and gap year counselor at Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, said some of her students have also reconsidered their college applications. One junior narrowed her list of potential colleges from 10 to just three, she said.

“She doesn’t feel like there’s a safe place to go,” Cook said.

It’s one of the most dramatic reactions Cook said he’s faced in recent weeks — most of his seniors have stuck to their original plans. Still, concerns from parents and students about the war recur, she said.

Gary Berger, who is part of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling special interest group for Jewish schools and students, said he receives “barrages” of questions from parents to across the country. He added that he has yet to see a student apply because of the war.

The outcry prompted him and other counselors — to Jewish and Muslim students — to scramble to offer college admissions advice they had never had to give before.

“What you need to pay attention to is the administrative response: Is there one? » said Cook.

Muslim and Jewish families are already facing a shift in the college admissions landscape

For many American families, the college admissions process has always been a black box.

Advice on how to navigate this isn’t available to everyone, and this disparity pushes some parents to shell out money to hire expensive private consultants – if they can afford it. University rankings do not meet everyone’s desires, price and the sticker shock that comes with it always weighs in on any decision. Even in the best of times, choosing the right school is a stressful endeavor.

Which university should I go to? This guide to campus culture can help you decide

The process is even more labor intensive for families belonging to certain religious or ethnic groups.

Muslim students, for example, typically look for universities with vibrant Muslim student associations, single-sex dorms and easily accessible prayer spaces, said Hamzah Henshaw, who has worked as a college and guidance counselor for high school students at Al-Noor Academy, an Islamic school in Massachusetts.

Jewish students must consider their own factors: access to kosher dining halls, for example, and accommodations for Jewish traditions and holidays.

These considerations can significantly narrow a student’s pool of potential schools. A published study in the academic journal Sociology of Education last year, it was found that only about a quarter of U.S. college campuses have Jewish or Muslim student groups.

Although Henshaw said none of his students have taken any college off their list: it’s still early in the college application season. The November 1 deadline for early decision applications has just passed, and deadlines for regular decision applicants won’t arrive until early next year.

Many factors ultimately influence student choice. Still, he added, families will undoubtedly be monitoring campuses where hatred rears its ugly head.

“There is no obvious refuge.”

Zachary Schermele is a breaking news and education reporter for USA TODAY. You can reach him by email at [email protected]. Follow him on X at @ZachSchermele.

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