West Bloomfield, Mich. — It was the first week of the new semester at Michigan Jewish Institute, a college of more than 2,000 students, nestled in the leafy Detroit suburb of West Bloomfield. But at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, the classrooms were silent and the entrance to the college’s temporary home, an impressive $6 million brick-and-glass synagogue with a vaulted roof that soars 50 feet into the sky, was desolate.
That’s because in less than a decade, MJI has transformed itself from a small campus-based college into a burgeoning online university, thanks in large part to more than $25 million in federal aid, designated for low-income students, which the not-for-profit school has received over the past five years.
But very little of this money has been spent on men and women taking courses in Michigan or, indeed, in the United States. Instead, the majority of MJI’s students can be found working toward an MJI degree in Judaic studies at yeshivas and seminaries overseas, mostly in Israel.
In a September 13 interview in a classroom at MJI, which is based at a magnificent Chabad synagogue called The Shul, Dov Stein, director of academic administration, said that MJI’s enrollment had grown this year to 3,000 students from only 300 students in 2004. In a subsequent email, Stein revised the figure down to just over 2,000 students.
As MJI has expanded rapidly, it has drawn increasingly on the Federal Pell Grant Program, the government’s largest education aid program targeting low-income students, which funnels public funds directly to the school. At the same time, MJI’s net income has soared. According to the institute’s most recent available tax records, between 2006 and 2010 inclusive, MJI’s net income increased to $850,000 from $89,000 — a staggering 860% five-year jump. The school ended 2010 with almost $3 million in assets. So far this calendar year, the school has received $8.7 million in federal aid.
But its academic record is poor. As the number of students has risen, performance on national proficiency exams has plummeted. Student retention has suffered, too. Data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education showed that only 9% of the students who began their studies in 2010 as freshmen returned in 2011 as sophomores. According to the same data, MJI awarded only three bachelor’s degrees in 2011.
This, despite MJI’s best efforts to help students complete their studies quickly by taking classes online while simultaneously learning at Israel-based yeshivas, from which they also earn credit.
At a time when studies show the poverty rate growing among America’s ultra-Orthodox communities, MJI’s potential impact on its target audience — young Jewish men and women, many from religiously observant homes — could be profound. But school officials could provide little evidence that MJI’s graduates are finding jobs or going on to receive higher degrees.
Nonetheless, Stein insisted that MJI is positioned to grow larger still. “We could easily surpass 10,000 students actively pursuing a degree,” he said.
Thanks, in large measure, to the American taxpayer.
Michigan Jewish Institute was founded by Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan in 1994 as a college catering mainly to Russian-speaking immigrants who needed to convert Soviet university degrees into something more recognizable to American employers.
Its first president was an Englishman, Chaim Dovid Kagan, who has five degrees, including a doctorate in physics from Imperial College, London. At the time, MJI offered vocational degrees specializing in business and computers. Yet even during the mid to late 1990s, some of MJI’s students enrolled in year-abroad programs.
Kagan, who left MJI in 2003, said many of those students used their affiliation with MJI to get financial aid for their year abroad and then did not return to MJI to complete their studies. As the number of overseas students rose, the college’s retention rate grew worse. “I knew a lot of people were only doing this [enrolling in MJI while abroad] to get the [financial] help and therefore there was a retention issue,” Kagan said. “It was inevitable that a lot of people would drop out.”
Kagan stressed that from the outset, MJI’s emphasis was on providing a “means and a Jewish environment to give job training, hence degrees in bachelors of applied sciences and in computing and business.” Study abroad was a side issue, so Kagan limited the number of year-abroad students to 120. “Otherwise,” he said, “retention would have been killed.”
But the number of Soviet Jews who needed job skills dwindled, as did the Jewish population in and around Detroit. “You are fishing in a very small pool,” said Hershel Gardin, MJI’s dean from 2000 until his retirement last year.
Gardin is an avuncular non-Hasidic Jew whose enthusiasm for MJI is infectious. Sitting in Sara’s Deli, a no-frills cafe in the Jewish Community Center at Oak Park, near his home in the heavily Orthodox neighborhood, Gardin explained the ultra-Orthodox dilemma — and how he believed MJI could help.
Too many young men and women are raised in families where secular and post high school education is frowned upon, Gardin said. And too many of those young people leave yeshiva and seminary without the qualifications necessary to provide for their large families. “They are a drag on the Jewish community,” Gardin said. “I am getting 15 letters a day, appealing for money for destitute people.”
Gardin believed that he had found a solution when, soon after joining MJI, he read of a communal study that warned of a dearth of talent in the organized Jewish world and in Jewish education. Potential employees either had excellent qualifications and a shallow understanding of Jewish life, or were knowledgeable about Judaism but lacked formal educational or managerial training.
Gardin thought he could design courses that would cover both areas, and thereby train a new generation of Orthodox Jews who could fan out to Jewish homes for the aged, hospices, schools and after-school programs, and fill gaps in federations. “We can make them upwardly mobile,” Gardin said. MJI’s degree in Judaic studies was born.
But Gardin had to get his program to people. “Online is the way to my world,” Gardin said. “It is my marketplace.”
In order to be able to offer degree courses and to be eligible for federal funding, a college must be accredited by one of several government-recognized accreditation agencies. MJI was first approved by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools in the late 1990s under Kagan. It has managed to pass every subsequent accreditation, carried out every two to six years since.The school’s next accreditation review is set for 2013.
Anthony Bieda, ACICS spokesman, said the agency does not accredit religious colleges or universities. “We accredit career colleges,” Bieda said, “and that scope is derived from U.S. Department of Education regulations and federal statute.”
In 2008, ACICS gave MJI permission to launch its online degree program in Judaic studies, which allowed MJI to increase student enrollment and to grow its study abroad programs. That same year, federal student aid to MJI began its rapid rise.
The men’s campus of Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies, a Chabad yeshiva, can be found on a busy street in a devout Orthodox neighborhood near Mahane Yehuda market, in West Jerusalem.
One recent Monday afternoon, a large group of men sat around a long table in an outdoor courtyard, studying. “This is absolutely a yeshiva environment,” said Jitschak Rosenbloom, Mayanot’s director of operations, speaking from a basement office below a beit midrash — or house of study — crammed with volumes of Talmud and other religious books, fronted by a Holy Ark.
Mayanot’s website reassures prospective students that a “lack of finances is not an obstacle” to an education at Mayanot. In addition to grants and scholarships from Jewish institutions such as local American federations, Taglit-Birthright Israel and MASA (a program of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government), Mayanot directs prospective American students to the U.S. Department of Education’s Pell Grant program.