A Non-Traditional, Worldwide Campus
Growing enrollment leads to growing scrutiny at MJI.
“Inaccuracies and misrepresentations.”
That’s the response from Chabad’s worldwide college based in West Bloomfield to the New York City-based Jewish Daily Forward’s Sept. 27 report titled “Chabad Michigan Jewish Institute May Close After Failing To Win Accreditation.”
Although the Forward article suggests that MJI is in imminent danger of being stripped of its accredidation and ultimately closing, the school’s administration refutes this, saying it has observed all appropriate federal laws and regulations.
An examination of the Forward’s allegations by the Detroit Jewish News has failed to reach the same conclusions as the Forward about the status of MJI.
While the Forward story correctly reports that MJI’s accreditation renewal by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) was deferred for a second time until Dec. 13, its claims that “the school now faces closure” and “thousands of Jewish students are at risk of losing their student aid” cannot be taken at face value.
“That’s ludicrous,” said Jan Friedman, a former chairman of the ACICS board of directors and former member of its Accrediting Commission for 25 years. “Deferrals are not considered a negative action. It’s actually a ‘business as usual’ part of the process.”
According to Friedman, deferrals are granted when ACICS requests more data from an institution to allow it the time needed to gather that data. “Deferrals are also granted when the commission made a request that was not clearly understood by the college,” she added. “The school is not in danger of closing.”
Friedman’s remarks seem to contradict the remarks of Anthony Bieda, vice president of external affairs at ACICS, who was quoted in the Forward as saying it was “unusual to have [accreditation] deferred twice” and “extremely rare to have it deferred a third time.”
The JN followed up with a phone call to Bieda to get clarification on his quote.
He said the intended meaning of his quote in the Forward was that it would be unusual or even rare for MJI to have its accredidation deferred through the end of its 24-month review process. But, he added — as of now — there is nothing unusual about the accreditation renewal process at MJI.
He cautioned that there can be no speculation as to what members of the accreditation council would or would not do at the end of the process, but that to suggest, as the Forward did, that the school would imminently lose accreditation and students would lose access to financial aid is simply not accurate.
Brief History of MJI
MJI is a nonprofit career college that offers bachelor and certificate programs for students interested in pursuing an education that accommodates their cultural and religious beliefs. It offers degrees in business, computers and Judaic studies.
The school has a six-member board of trustees. Joe Katz is one of those trustees. A resident of Bloomfield Township and past-president of Troy-based Congregation Shir Tikvah, Katz has been involved with MJI for about 12 years and on the board since 2004. He’s self-employed as a marketing consultant at Katz & Associates in Bloomfield Hills.
“MJI provides an academically sound education and means for a livelihood to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it — and it does it affordably,” Katz said. “That’s a pretty noble undertaking, and I’m proud of the school’s leaders.”
The college started in 1994, with the goal to serve the Jewish community and educate students to help them get jobs in computer and business information systems, said Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov, MJI president.
MJI served two main populations: Russian Jewish immigrants and the Orthodox community. “We were able to cater to these communities,” Shemtov said. “IT [information technology] was hot at the time. Soon after they graduated, many got jobs.”
The school became ACICS-accredited in 1997, which meant students were eligible for federal student loans and grants.
“After 2000, jobs in the IT market dried up, and we were looking at what else we could offer our population of students that would help them get jobs,” said Shemtov, who adds that studies at that time showed a shortage of professionals qualified to work in Jewish organizations.
“When the Judaic studies program was being planned, the goal was to provide students with a career-oriented professional education and to make it available globally,” Shemtov said.
MJI applied for and got accreditation for a Judaic studies degree. It launched its online program in 2006, which was accredited in 2009.
The online Judaic studies program generated “great interest from Orthodox communities throughout the world. This interest has resulted in a substantial increase in MJI enrollment,” Shemtov said.
About 2,000 students study at MJI, compared with 42 students before the online Judaic studies degree rolled out. Many of the students wanted the opportunity to study for a year in Israel at a yeshivah or seminary and earn credits toward their degrees, Shemotv added.
Working closely with partner schools in Israel, students who participate in the MJI Study Abroad Program may earn additional credits per year toward their bachelor degree.
Pell Grants/Study Abroad
Last October, the Forward published a story insinuating that the Michigan Jewish Institute is taking advantage of the federal Pell Grant program to allow students to pursue religious studies in Israel, claiming that “MJI received $25 million in federal aid between 2008 and 2013, despite graduating hardly any students.”
What the Forward failed to clarify is that neither MJI — nor any other college — receives Pell funds directly from the federal government. Pell Grants are awarded exclusively to U.S. students who can then choose a U.S. Department of Education-certified college to receive the funds.
Nearly all of U.S. MJI students receive Pell Grants.
“MJI’s role with respect to the Pell Grant program is to administer the program on behalf of students,” school administrators said in a written statement provided to the JN. “MJI distributes those funds strictly in accordance with applicable regulations and in accordance with the wishes of the student.
“Many students instruct MJI (in writing) to use their Pell Grant funds to pay tuition and fees related to their study abroad program, including amounts that are due to the partner institution.
“In other cases, Pell Grant funds are remitted directly to the student. MJI students are regularly advised that they can amend or revoke their written instructions to MJI regarding the use of their Pell Grants at any time.”
As a matter of law, American citizens studying abroad may apply for and, if they qualify, receive Pell Grants to defray costs incurred in their education.
According to a National Association of Student Loan Administrators (NASLA) spokesman, agreements such as the ones between MJI and its partner schools in Israel are allowable under Title IV rules, which state: “Under a consortium or contractual agreement (including those for study-abroad programs), the home school must give credit for courses taken at the other schools on the same basis as if it provided the training itself.
“The underlying assumption of such an agreement is that the home school has found the other school’s or organization’s academic standards equivalent to its own and the instruction an acceptable substitute for its own.”
According to NASLA, the partner school can provide up to 50 percent of the educational program. “However, the home school’s accrediting agency must determine and confirm in writing that the agreement meets its standards for contracting out education services,” the NASLA spokesman adds.
MJI allows students to receive 49 percent of credits toward a degree through its partner schools.
The Forward is correct in reporting that the majority of MJI’s 2,000 students study in Israel, yet it failed to note that most of these students are U.S. citizens studying as guests at partner schools in Israel.
The vast majority of MJI students are taking courses half-time online with MJI and half-time at an approved partner school. MJI has a list of qualified partner schools, seminaries and yeshivahs on its website. Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan is one of its partner schools.
To become a partner school for MJI, an institution must apply, be approved and comply fully with all MJI requirements and published technical guidelines. To be recognized by MJI and qualify for Pell funds, courses taken by students at partner schools must conform to courses in the MJI catalog.
Chani Loeb, 24, originally from Baltimore, is living and studying business and computers online with MJI in Jerusalem. She does not attend a partner school. She works as a secretary at a travel agency. She received Pell Grants, which she uses to study with MJI. She said she chose MJI because “it was a school in which I could study in English, but for the time being, remain in Israel. It also will allow me to live wherever I decide I want to live.”
Rey Stone, 61, of Farmington Hills teaches Japanese and English for Japanese students. She earned her degree in Judaic studies with a concentration in Judaic education in 2010 and went on to grad school, where she earned her master’s degree in east Asian language and cultures. She received an MJI Judaic Studies Scholarship during her time at MJI.
“I was looking for a university that I could attend from home,” she said.
The Forward noted that MJI accepts qualified transfer credits earned by students at other educational institutions to count toward the 120-credit graduation requirement. That’s true, just as it is in nearly all colleges and universities in the U.S. For example, the University of Michigan accepts up to 30 transfer credits toward a 120-credit bachelor degree.
“Our students have successfully transferred credits to the University of Michigan,” said Dov Stein, MJI’s director of academic administration. “The decision lies with the school accepting the transfer credits.
“For example, as part of MJI’s math and science requirements, students must take the course Introduction to Computer Science. As we have special focus on development of that course, students trying to transfer that course from another school to MJI will face extra scrutiny. A lot of schools have a similar approach.”
The Forward also highlighted the graduation rate at MJI in its story, saying “few, if any, students complete their degree courses.”
Shemtov disagrees with that assessment.
“It takes four to six years for students to go through to graduation,” he said. “We’ve had wonderful success in short-term certificate graduations.”
MJI offers students a one-year certificate in Judaic studies on their way to the bachelor degree. The school has handed out 1,500 certificates since the online program was accredited in 2009.
“Many students are continuing in their programs, and some have already taken jobs in the field, even before completing their bachelor’s degrees,” Shemtov added.
MJI’s ACICS retention rate is 96 percent. “We anticipate significant growth in the number of MJI bachelor’s degrees awarded in the next few years,” Shemtov said.
The Forward suggested that MJI’s soon-to-be constructed 16,000-square-foot, three-story main campus facility was funded directly or indirectly by Pell Grants. That is not the case, Shemtov says. The campus, recently given the green light for construction by West Bloomfield Township, will be built with private funds raised over the last five years.
Currently, some MJI classes take place at The Shul on the Chabad-Lubovitch campus in West Bloomfield, including dual-curriculum classes taken by high school students studying Hebrew at MJI because it is not offered in their districts.
But why does the school need a building when the majority of its students study offsite?
“We don’t really have a place to call home,” Shemtov said, during an interview at an MJI administrative office, rather cramped and crowded, at the Specs Howard School of Media Arts building in Southfield.
“Our staff has grown [there are 30 full-time employees in Michigan and 50 full-time and adjunct instructors]. We’re going to have a studio for our online classes and space for students. We’re growing. It’s a vibrant organization. It needs a place, and it’s going to grow.”
Shemtov would not say when ground would be broken or when the building would be completed.
“We now want to turn back in and invest more of our resources in Michigan,” Shemtov added. “We’re very excited for the future and growing our programs locally. The building is part of that process.
“The project also reflects MJI’s commitment to serve students on the ground in our local community, even while our global reach has broadened. Our new building has been made possible mainly by the generosity of private donors and will be attractive and serviceable.”