How Jewish College Uses Federal Funds To Grow

Chabad College Booms Despite Weak Academic Record

Campus: Dov Stein, head of academics at Michigan Jewish Institute, stands outside the entrance to The Shul, a $6 million synagogue in West Bloomfield, where some MJI classes are held.
Paul Berger
Campus: Dov Stein, head of academics at Michigan Jewish Institute, stands outside the entrance to The Shul, a $6 million synagogue in West Bloomfield, where some MJI classes are held.

By Paul Berger

Published October 04, 2012, issue of October 12, 2012.
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It’s not unusual for foreign institutions to accept American students who are funded partly by Pell grants and come to study in a year-abroad program. Many overseas schools and colleges operate such programs. But in this case, Mayanot’s website appears to be directly recruiting students by suggesting they apply for Pell grant aid so that they can attend Mayanot in Israel as their primary institution.

Pell grants were introduced 40 years ago to help low-income students go to college. Despite the recent financial crisis and congressional attempts to curb spending, the Obama administration has increased Pell spending to $35.7 billion this year, from $18.3 billion in 2008. The maximum Pell award for a student this year was $5,550.

Although the program has succeeded in sending a growing number of young people to college, some foundations, policymakers and analysts believe it should focus more on college completion rates than simply on access to college. This concern has been exacerbated by reports that some for-profit universities are making huge sums from federal aid while shepherding very few students through to the end of their certificate program or degree.

Class Schedule: A list of classes offered at MJI.
Paul Berger
Class Schedule: A list of classes offered at MJI.

In order to be eligible for a Pell grant to attend the yeshiva, Mayanot’s young men and women must register as students at MJI — something that has become much easier since the expansion of the college’s online program, which allows students to be based anywhere in the world.

Stein said that more than 80% of MJI’s students are enrolled in its online courses. Some of those students are taking a purely online degree: Stein put the number this year at 150 to 200. But the rest combine online classes with study abroad in places such as Mayanot.

During Stein’s first interview with the Forward, on September 13, he said he could not recall the names of any of the 60-or-so host schools MJI worked with in the past academic year, though he said Jerusalem was a popular location. He also could not say which was the most popular school.

In a September 24 email, Stein named three highly regarded Jerusalem seminaries and one yeshiva as “among the most popular” schools for the coming year — Beth Jacob Teachers Seminary, Seminary Beit Yaakov Darchei Rachel, P’ninim Seminary and Yeshivas Tiferes Yerushalayim. But a page on MJI’s own website lists some 45 institutions, including 40 in Israel, almost all of them yeshivas for men or religious seminaries for women.

Stein said he could not offer student numbers for each school because enrollment for MJI’s study abroad students would not be finalized until the end of the Jewish holidays, on October 9.

Rivka Preisler, Mayanot’s financial aid officer and finance manager, said that about 15 to 20 of the institute’s 120 students are on an MJI study abroad program partly funded by Pell grants. Preisler said MJI takes “a certain amount” of the Pell grant and the rest is “applied to Mayanot tuition.”

Kasriel Shemtov, MJI’s president, told the Forward in a September 30 email that “MJI students who are resident U.S. citizens currently are charged a fixed administrative fee of $2,650 in addition to the host school tuition.”

Although MJI still offers vocational degrees geared toward information technology and business, its most popular degree by far is Judaic Studies. Last year, according to an MJI document, a total of 167 MJI students were enrolled in business or computer programs, compared with 1,728 students enrolled in the Judaic studies degree.

Stein said the Bachelor of Arts in Judaic Studies is a four-year course, but students who study abroad can complete it faster by taking MJI online classes concurrently with their Israel-based studies in yeshiva.

MJI students need 120 credits for a bachelor’s degree. But Stein said that if students study overseas they can accrue 24 credits at a yeshiva or a seminary and a further 24 credits at MJI online in the same year. “We don’t typically recommend it, because the heavier the [work]load, the less likely you are to succeed in your studies,” Stein said. “But yeah, theoretically, you could accumulate” up to 48 credits in one academic year. Many students finish their first year with “between 40 and 48 credits,” he said.

Working at such a pace, it could take an MJI student as little as two and a half years to complete his or her degree — especially if a student transfers in credit from a yeshiva or from work experience prior to starting the degree, a practice that is popular among MJI students.

According to Mayanot’s website, students can receive a bachelor’s degree in just two years at the school “in addition to two semesters of general studies” at MJI online.

College Navigator, which uses data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, reports that only 9% of MJI’s freshmen students who began their studies in 2010 returned in 2011 for a second year. MJI claims its retention rate is closer to 97%.

The disparity is caused by the radically different ways in which MJI and the Department of Education count their students.

MJI bases its retention rate not on students who return the following year, but on how many students complete the academic year they are in. MJI’s Stein said that is how “retention” is defined by MJI’s accreditor, ACICS.

Bieda agreed that his agency does count retention in this manner. But he explained that ACICS focuses on retention during a single academic year because it specializes in accrediting career colleges, many of which run 12- to 18-month diploma and certificate programs rather than four-year degree programs. “For simplicity’s sake we stick with the one-year cohort of retention,” Bieda said.

The Forward asked Stein on September 28 to provide retention numbers from the most recently available group of freshman who went on to sophomore year. Stein did not respond. The Forward asked Shemtov the same question on September 30 and again on October 2. Shemtov said that MJI “would have to look into the meaningfulness of such a number at a future date.”

However, figures published in MJI’s most recent Institutional Effectiveness Plan, an internal document produced as part of MJI’s accreditation procedure, show a steep fall-off in student numbers from one year to the next. At the end of the academic year 2011–12, MJI had 1,522 freshmen, 320 sophomores, 51 juniors and 26 seniors.

When asked about these figures, Stein said they reflected MJI’s rapidly increasing enrollment.

Although MJI’s website refers to its “main campus library,” the college has never had a permanent home. Currently, it uses classroom space in The Shul, a modern 20,000-square-foot synagogue that opened in West Bloomfield in 2002

One midweek evening in September, a couple dozen students, mainly high school girls, were spread over three classrooms. Most looked to be very secular — short shorts, exposed elbows — taking basic Hebrew lessons they could use as dual enrollment credits that count toward the foreign language requirement for their high school or college.

There was a stark contrast between these girls and many of MJI’s graduates who study abroad. A few years ago, MJI instituted a standardized exit exam to gauge the proficiency of its students in writing, math, reading and critical thinking. Results published in MJI’s Institutional Effectiveness Plan show that as MJI’s student body grew, the exam results deteriorated sharply.

Between 2008 and 2011, national percentile rankings for MJI students fell across the board. Writing proficiency fell to 32% from 61%, reading fell to 30% from 55%, math fell to 28% from 42% and critical thinking fell to 25% from 73%.

Stein said that the results worried MJI. One possible reason for the decline, he said, was that many students may not have English as a first language and are more proficient in Yiddish and Hebrew, so a timed test in English “is not a representative measure of their abilities.”

This year, Stein said, MJI put its students through a similar exit exam, this time in Hebrew, “and results improved.”

During their interviews, Stein and Gardin spoke proudly of MJI graduates who had used their degree to go on to higher education. Stein said one student had gone to Yeshiva University and another to Columbia University.

Elizabeth Stein, investigative counsel for the U.S. Senate committee looking into the use of Pell grants, was skeptical. A public or a not-for-profit university, she said, would be unlikely to accept transfer credits from an institution accredited, as MJI is, by ACICS. According to Elizabeth Stein, most public and not-for-profit universities look for regional accreditation before accepting credits from another school. ACICS is a national accrediting agency.

MJI’s president Shemtov said “simply this is wrong.” Shemtov added that MJI graduates “have been accepted by numerous graduate and professional schools,” such as Duke University, Rutgers University and Temple University.

The Forward asked to speak to the MJI graduate who went to Columbia or to other alumni who had secured a job or were accepted to graduate school. MJI put the Forward in touch with Shalom Stark, an American living near Caesarea in Israel. Stark completed two B.A.s at MJI online — in Judaic studies and in business information systems — in two years. He was able to do so quickly because he transferred in credits from his community college and from time at a yeshiva.

Stark said that Bar-Ilan University accepted him in its Master of Business Administration program but a business he started — Shalom Israel Tours — was doing so well that he did not have time to study further.

In addition to being president of MJI, Shemtov is the spiritual director of The Shul, where MJI is temporarily based. (Mayanot’s executive director is also named Kasriel Shemtov. MJI’s president declined to say whether they are related.)

The Shemtovs are a powerful and influential family within the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. The Shemtov dynasty in Michigan was launched in 1958, when Kasriel Shemtov’s father, Berel Shemtov, founded Chabad of Michigan. Berel Shemtov and his children founded several congregations and institutions. In 1990, Chabad of Michigan bought 40 acres of former forestland in West Bloomfield, known as the Campus of Living Judaism.

The Shul sits at the heart of the campus. A couple of minutes’ walk north is The Friendship Circle, a hugely successful not-for-profit serving children with special needs that was founded by Kasriel Shemtov’s sister Bassie and her husband, Levi Shemtov (Kasriel Shemtov declined to say whether Levi is a direct relation).

During the Forward’s visit to the Campus of Living Judaism, both Dov Stein and Levi Shemtov pointed out a plot of forested land, between The Shul and the Friendship Circle, that has been set aside for a new multimillion-dollar permanent building for Michigan Jewish Institute — a school where most of the students do not speak English as a first language and where most of the students can be found online or overseas.

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter@pdberger

Ben Lynfield contributed to this story from Jerusalem.


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