Struggling students

American Jews may be highly educated, but a college degree is out of reach for some

In Short

Prior to the pandemic, it was a little-known story in the Jewish community that there were Jewish students who struggled to pay for a bachelor’s degrees.

Last week, in an eJP opinion piece, Samuel J. Abrams argued that the Jewish community needs to continue to invest in Jewish life on campus to support the high numbers of American Jews expected to attend college. Abrams focuses on conditions that may make campus life inhospitable for Jewish students, but another threat lurks that makes college all but impossible for some: the escalating cost of attendance.   

Prior to the pandemic, it was a little-known story in the Jewish community that there were Jewish students who struggled to pay for a bachelor’s degree. I’ve learned about these students firsthand, as executive director of the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women (JFEW), which for close to 100 years has provided college scholarships to women with financial need. In many ways, the students’ stories are no different from those of other Americans living on the financial edge: they are from families whose economic lives unravel due to divorce, disability, unemployment or illness; they are first-generation college students who must navigate an inscrutable financial aid system; and they are the children of immigrants whose parents struggle to earn a living in their new home.

There are also students who experience uniquely Jewish dimensions to their financial stress, such as young adults whose families, on paper, have income and assets that position them in the middle class, but cannot save for college due to the high costs of living an observant Jewish life, including religious school for multiple children, kosher food and top-market rents. There are also women who leave ultra-Orthodox communities — some with their children — with dreams of post-secondary education, but lack the financial means, employable skills or high school degree to make that possible. 

Adding to the challenge is the escalating price tag of college attendance, even at public university systems dedicated to serving low-income populations. At CUNY here in New York, the cost of attendance for a student living away from home can approach $30,000 a year. For some, this can mean a chronic trade-off between paying for tuition, rent or groceries.  A 2019 survey of Jewish students affiliated with CUNY Hillels, conducted by UJA-Federation New York, bears this out; among its findings was that 44% of respondents had experienced food insecurity over the past year.  

As it has for so many things, the pandemic has only made these struggles more intense.  COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on low-income students of all backgrounds, and Jewish ones are no exception. College enrollment, particularly at community colleges and public universities, has dropped precipitously since the fall of 2019, especially among men. There has been a mental health crisis on college campuses, where students who lack the resources for private counseling need to make due with overburdened university systems. And students have depended on emergency aid to cover basic expenses just so they could stay in school. (While the vast majority of student emergency funding came from the federal government through the CARES Act, an emergency grant program for CUNY Hillel students provided much needed local support).

Philanthropies committed to fighting poverty and advancing economic mobility in the Jewish community need a strategy for college access, persistence, and completion. Specifically, funding should be directed towards:

  1. Research: Data is needed on post-secondary education among Jews from low-income families, including information on who has started degree programs, how far they have advanced and how many completed. Questions should be included in community studies to better understand the intersection between higher education (or lack thereof) and financial duress.
  1. Advising: Would-be students need help navigating the certificate, associate and bachelor’s degree landscape.  There has been a burgeoning of short-term certification programs to help unemployed and low-paid workers advance professionally. These programs meet local labor market demands and incrementally grow peoples’ incomes.  Likewise, associate degrees can provide students with technical skills to move them into a profession or trade within two years. A four-year degree is the most powerful credential to advance economic mobility, but not all people have the time or community support to pursue one (this is especially true in Haredi communities, which are reluctant to send students into secular educational environments). Culturally-sensitive financial and academic advisors, placed in community-based organizations in working class, immigrant and religious Jewish neighborhoods, would be a worthy investment.
  1. Financial assistance: Funders should expand scholarship opportunities for Jewish students from low and middle-income families. Tuition is only one part of the school financing equation; students need support for food, housing, books, school fees and other basic expenses.  JFEW is incredibly proud of the generations of women who have completed post-secondary degrees with its support, but this work is too big for only a few organizations to take on, especially when Jewish financial need exists across the country. Philanthropies committed to fighting Jewish poverty and strengthening Jewish life on campus should consider scholarship support in their grant making strategy.

That Jews have among the highest rates of college education in the United States cannot obscure the fact that this education is not available to all. As the Jewish philanthropic community strategizes for a post-pandemic world, let us add accessible post-secondary credentials to its list of priorities.

Rona Sheramy, Ph.D., is executive director of the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women, a private philanthropy in New York dedicated to college completion for women of all backgrounds.