New York yeshiva students received almost $9 million in state grants during the first half of 2012, thanks to a recent change in state law that made them eligible for the first time for a state-funded financial aid program.
The students, who were previously barred from receiving funds offered by New York State’s Tuition Assistance Program, also claimed $17.2 million dollars in federal Pell grants during the past academic year.
Because the change to New York’s eligibility rules took effect in January, halfway through the academic year, next year’s TAP bill for yeshiva students is likely to be about $18 million, said Neal Warren, director of research for New York State’s Higher Education Services Corporation. The outlays to yeshiva students constitute virtually all the money going to theological students in New York State.
This makes state money about as great a source of revenue for New York’s yeshivas as the better-known federal Pell grant program for low-income students, from which many also receive funds.
Ultra-Orthodox community leaders and the state politicians who represent them have advocated for years that yeshivas ought to be eligible for TAP, which pays out hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the region’s neediest undergraduate students.
Previously, students “obtain[ing] professional instruction in theology” were prohibited from receiving TAP funds. But following a 10-year legislative battle, state lawmakers changed the statute governing TAP in 2011, allowing theological students to apply.
Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America, said in a November 1 email that by opening up grants to yeshiva students, New York was “simply following the federal model (just as many other states do).”
Several other states, including Illinois and New Jersey, have state tuition aid programs for low-income students, to which yeshiva students may apply. But the change in New York State’s eligibility provisions last year came under criticism at the time, in some measure because it was part of budget legislation that cut state aid to public universities and colleges by 10%. The budget at the same time set aside $18 million to fund aid for the newly eligible yeshiva students.
New York’s TAP grants of up to $5,000 for students who are dependent on their parents and $3,025 for financially independent students do not have to be repaid.
Mark Kantrowitz, a tuition funding specialist, said the debate over subsidizing theological students usually boils down to a battle between those who argue for separation of religion and state and those who say all taxpayers should benefit from state funds.
Deborah Glick, chair of the New York State Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, opposed the change in eligibility rules when they were first inserted by then-New York Governor David Paterson into the state’s 2010 austerity budget.
Glick called the proposal “a fairly expensive new initiative in a year when we’re told there are no new initiatives,” due to budget austerity.
On November 8, Glick said she still opposed the change, not just for budgetary reasons but also because the seminaries run by the groups that benefit from the funds discriminate against women. The yeshivas in question do not admit females, and the groups that sponsor them sponsor no comparable yeshivas for women.
“I continue to think it essentially adds to yet another area in which there is a gender discrimination situation, a lack of gender parity, and that’s not a [cause for] happiness,” Glick said.
At the time the eligibility change was inserted into the budget, it was clear to most involved that the provision for theological students would primarily benefit yeshivas. But Agudath’s executive vice president, David Zwiebel, insisted other religious groups would benefit, too.
A report issued on November 1 by New York State’s Higher Education Services Corporation confirmed that yeshivas were the primary beneficiaries.
The report showed that only one non-Jewish institution, Nyack College, a Christian liberal arts school with an undergraduate seminary track, applied for funds in the first half of 2012. The remaining schools — 32 out of the 33 that received funds — were yeshivas.
Dona Schepens, Nyack’s assistant treasurer, said the reason the college applied under the new rules is so that its pastoral ministry majors and youth and family ministry majors could claim the same grants as their peers in secular academic programs. Schepens said that nine students collected a total of $8,200.
The remainder of New York’s $9 million in TAP funds to theological students went to yeshiva scholars. An HESC employee initially told the Forward that the organization would release a breakdown of how much each yeshiva received after HESC published its annual report. But after the report was published, an HESC spokesman declined both the Forward’s request and also declined to explain why the request was denied.
New York’s TAP is among the largest state financial aid programs in the country for low-income students. During the past academic year, the HESC report estimated, New York State paid $920 million in grants to almost 400,000 students.
The program has struggled in recent years. In 2010 it had to cut awards to all students by 2%. That same year, New York State ended a modest TAP program for graduates, costing about $3 million annually.
Such cost-cutting measures are not unusual. Paul Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, said states have struggled for decades to keep up with rising enrollment and with inflation. In New York, enrollment in public postsecondary education has increased by 37% since 2000.
Kantrowitz said states usually save money by reducing their grants or by tightening eligibility rules. He voiced surprise at New York’s decision to expand eligibility while it was struggling to fund the program.
“It’s a drop in the bucket in terms of percentage of overall funding,” Kantrowitz said of the estimated $18 million that will go to yeshiva students next year, “but still, every penny counts when they are trying to make ends meet.”
In fact, TAP payments to religious students represented just 1% of total TAP expenditure during the 2011-12 academic year. But payments to individual Orthodox students were on average considerably higher than to those at secular schools.
Full-time degree program students at The State University of New York and The City University of New York received average grants of $2,500 and $3,400, respectively. Yeshiva students were awarded an average of $2,250 for just half a year, meaning that they are likely to be awarded about $4,500 for a full year during the current academic cycle.
HESC’s Warren said that the discrepancy was “driven primarily by income.” The most likely reason that students in the yeshiva programs receive higher awards, he explained, is that they come from poorer families.
This appears to be in line with the results of a recent UJA-Federation of New York study showing that the region’s ultra-Orthodox community has a growing poverty problem.
It also corresponds with evidence that yeshiva students are among the primary beneficiaries of federal Pell grants for theological students. A recent study by the Forward showed that yeshivas received 53% of the $84.5 million in Pell grant money that went to religious schools in 2010.
While HESC declined to release a breakdown of individual TAP awards to yeshivas, it is likely that United Talmudical Seminary, in Brooklyn and UTA Mesivta of Kiryas Joel — the largest religious Pell grant recipients in the state last year — took the largest share of New York’s TAP funds for religious schools.
Until New York’s eligibility rules were changed, all schools that received TAP grants had to be supervised by the state’s education department. Because yeshivas are not supervised by the department, HESC had to find other measures for such schools to qualify for TAP funds.
Kathy Crowder, an HESC spokeswoman, said that in order to receive TAP funds, theological students and their schools must be eligible for Pell funding. The students must also satisfy several additional requirements, such as meeting standards for satisfactory academic progress. The schools must be able to demonstrate adequate financial resources as well as adequate faculty and defined admissions requirements.
“Each school’s TAP certifying officer must certify that a student has met the statutory standards for satisfactory academic progress,” Crowder wrote in an email. “The Office of the New York State Comptroller reviews whether schools have properly certified students as part of an independent TAP audit.”
In a follow-up email, the Forward asked Crowder what a TAP “certifying officer” was, if this officer was a state employee or an employee of the school receiving the funds, and what, exactly, were the “statutory standards” the yeshivas must meet to show “satisfactory academic progress.” The Forward also asked whether the New York State Comptroller had, in fact, independently audited any of the yeshivas, and what those audits showed.
Crowder wrote back, on November 8, that because of “Hurricane Sandy and several other time-sensitive matters” HESC was unable to respond.
Contact Paul Berger at email@example.com or on Twitter@pdberger