Yeshivas Score Huge Pell Grant Windfall

Jewish Religious Colleges Get Tens of Millions in Federal Aid

Tax Dollars for Talmud: Jewish colleges are among the leading religious institutions receiving federal Pell Grant funding.
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Tax Dollars for Talmud: Jewish colleges are among the leading religious institutions receiving federal Pell Grant funding.

By Paul Berger

Published October 31, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
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Besides, focusing on such data may be missing the point.

“There are a lot of numeric proxies, such as graduation rates [and] retention rates” said Mark Kantrowitz, an author of three books on student financial aid. “But nothing… really cuts to the heart of the issue, which is that some of these institutions are taking federal student aid funding for religious instruction instead of secular instruction.”

Kantrowitz, who publishes websites focused on planning and paying for college, Fastweb and FinAid, said that Pell-funded credit cannot be given for religious instruction. But yeshivas find wiggle room in the space between Jewish philosophy and Jewish prayer. “Talmud is in a gray area because it’s like studying the law,” Kantrowitz said. Similarly, Hebrew may be used for religious purposes, but it is also a living language.

To qualify for federal funding, schools must be accredited by an organization recognized by the Department of Education. The Jewish institutions named in this article are a handful of the 82 schools accredited by AARTS.

Bernard Fryshman, AARTS executive director, declined to comment, citing a “philosophical objection to speaking to the Forward.”

A copy of AARTS’s accreditation manual, however, submitted in 2007 as part of its petition for renewal of its recognition by the Education Department, reflects some of the idiosyncrasies of the yeshiva system.

The manual, a 90-page-long series of questions, is designed to help yeshivas produce a self-study document as part of their accreditation procedure. Along with standard questions about organizational structure, budgets and alumni, AARTS asks questions that would not normally be directed at more conventional institutions, such as:

“Is your Bais Medrash large enough to serve your student body?”

“Some people feel that an excessive use of a library results in a superficial knowledge of the textual material rather than in an in-depth understanding. Do you agree?”

“Do you seek to have a student body homogeneous in its attitudes and backgrounds, or do you look for diversity?”

Above all, the manual underlines the difficulty of evaluating such religious institutions according to secular standards. “There is no state licensing test which can be used to validate success, and our faculties have been challenged to describe what it is [yeshivas] do in a way that we, the accrediting body, can present to the outside world,” Fryshman writes in his introduction to the manual.

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


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