As students get ready to go back to college later this month, men studying become rabbis at private undergraduate yeshivas can now qualify for aid under New York's Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP.
Orthodox Jews had been lobbying for the change for years. David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, said it was a matter of fairness.
"The Federal Pell grant program has been available to students attending rabbinical colleges," he noted. "It was ironic, to put it mildly, that New York state -- which has the largest single concentration of rabbinic colleges and Orthodox Jewish families, or Jewish families -- with people pursuing careers in the rabbinate, that the state would not allow that which the federal government does allow," Zwiebel said.
The TAP awards are worth up to $5,000 for students attending undergraduate universities and colleges. The yeshivas attended by rabbinical students are not regular undergraduate institutions, which was why a change in state law was necessary for these students to qualify. There are estimates that giving them TAP will cost New York state up to $18 million a year, because there are several thousand students.
The change in law, and questions about it, were reported this summer by the Web site InvestigateNY.org. Though the legislation was written to benefit theological students in general, it primarily affects those studying to become Orthodox rabbis. Critics have complained about giving state funds to students attending strictly religious schools that are not regular, accredited colleges. They note that at the same time, the state is also cutting funding to the CUNY and SUNY system.
Assemblywoman Deborah Glick of Manhattan said instead of singling out men attending strictly religious schools, the state should have raised the $80,000 family income cutoff to allow more students, overall, to qualify for TAP financial aid.
"This expansion, which is somewhere between $12 million and $18 million, is not insignificant," she said, "and I think it is wholly inappropriate for us to be making that change now."
Glick says she voted for the change last spring because it was part of the bigger budget deal.
Meanwhile, the issue isn't exactly on the radar for students attending regular state colleges. Ari Saati, a junior at SUNY Oneonta and director of communications for the SUNY student assembly, said "If it means that New York residents are getting education, it's a good thing."
Saati said the student assembly has been much more focused on fighting for legislation allowing SUNY and CUNY to make small, fixed tuition increases each year instead of much larger hikes every few years.