Making Parnassah Affordable
June 18, 2021
Sara Schenirer’s Initiative to Make Higher Education Accessible
Chani Reiss* grew up in Lakewood and dreamed of becoming an ABA therapist. Dassi, her older sister, was an accountant, but Chani was looking for an opportunity to work with children on the spectrum and support a husband in kollel for as long as possible.
Chani knew that to accomplish this goal, she’d need to first earn a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree. It wasn’t the work or time that she feared; it was the expense and the thought of attending college that gave her pause.
Chani understood that asking her parents, who were struggling financially, to pay for a degree was not a simple matter. Moreover, as a sincere Bais Yaakov graduate, she wasn’t ready to sacrifice her hard-earned morals and hashkafos for a degree and wouldn’t consider attending a secular college program.
Of course, there were frum degree programs like Sara Schenirer that promised a compromise-free educational experience. That was an attractive option for Chani. There, students were segregated from the actual college they were enrolled in, all professors were frum and experts in their field, and the schedule revolved around the Yamim Tovim. All coursework was meticulously reviewed and tailored to ensure hashkafic sensitivity.
But the financial problem remained: How to pay for this quality program? Sara Schenirer, like other frum degree programs, partnered only with New York colleges, and as a New Jersey resident, Chani would only be able to receive federal financial aid, not state. What was an ambitious young woman like Chani to do?
The good news is that young ladies like Chani no longer face this problem. Just nine months ago, in July 2020, Sara Schenirer announced an exciting new partnership with St. Peter’s University, a New Jersey institution of higher education, to enable Lakewood students to receive the full amount of financial aid grants. The combination of federal and New Jersey financial aid often covers the full cost of a degree program; as a result, students are now eligible to earn degrees at a greatly reduced price or even free of charge. Sara Schenirer also arranged for significant scholarships for students who are not eligible to receive need-based financial aid to offset the cost of earning a degree.
“After watching Lakewood students struggle to afford a degree for so many years, we were determined to change that in a very significant way,” shares Mrs. Batsheva Shonek, longtime director of Sara Schenirer. “Our new partnership with SPU is a real game changer. They worked with us to ensure that students receive full financial aid or, in the case of students who are not eligible, exceptionally large scholarships. This means that students will pay either nothing or relatively small sums for what would otherwise be an expensive degree.”
Mrs. Shonek adds that the senior leadership of the college are all highly supportive of this effort. “They took a personal interest in our community and were committed to finding a solution to the problem. Every cost-saving measure that we could think of was embraced enthusiastically by the president, provost, and program deans.”
The best part, according to Mrs. Shonek, is that SPU was equally interested in partnering with Sara Schenirer to aid students and ensuring that Sara Schenirer could adhere to the high hashkafic and educational standards it is known for. “They agreed to follow the same guidelines regarding educational materials, professors, and scheduling that we have with our other college partners. They’re really on the same page as us.”
According to Mrs. Aidella Avtzon, academic director, the university has been very receptive to her oversight and equally flexible in its requirements. “I work closely with the dean of each program to recommend professors from within the Lakewood community. Of course, they must meet the college’s hiring standards, but that’s not an obstacle. We have many outstanding professionals within our community, and the college is enthusiastic about bringing them on board to teach the Sara Schenirer students.”
Bachelor’s in education and special education
Although the partnership was only formalized in July, in fall of 2020 Sara Schenirer began its first program through SPU with a large cohort of students.
“We offered a BA in education and special education program that offers full New Jersey certification at the bachelor’s level,” explains Mrs. Chumie Meisels, Lakewood coordinator. “Whereas New York requires educators to have a bachelor’s and master’s degree, New Jersey does not. The state requires only a bachelor’s degree in education, and students receive full New Jersey certification at the undergraduate level. This eliminates the need for extra schooling and greatly reduces the cost, since master’s degrees are not eligible for financial aid grants, only loans.”
Baila*, a current student in the program, shares that her experience to date has been thrilling. “The coursework is definitely challenging, but we’re learning so much and gaining real skills. I can see the difference these skills make in my classroom where I perform fieldwork. But the really exciting thing is that I will only need a bachelor’s degree to gain my certification. My older sisters who went through Sara Schenirer in previous years needed to earn a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.”
Aliza*, another student in the program, explains that her favorite part of the program is the instructors. “I was concerned about the hashkafos and didn’t want to lose my sensitivity toward things that aren’t acceptable. My parents and I even spoke to our rav before I joined. I just finished my second semester in the program, and my original concern hasn’t been a problem in the slightest. They’re really on top of those things, and in that regard, it’s been no different from the experience I had in my high school, which is considered among the best in Lakewood.”
Education, accounting, psychology, and business
Following its successful launch, Sara Schenirer is now opening the program to all post-high school students and adding multiple fields.
Students can choose from four bachelor’s degree programs:
- BA in education and special education
- BA in psychology
- BS in accounting
- BS in business management
Each program features the same generous financial aid and scholarship options, and all can be completed in just three semesters, with the exception of the bachelor’s in education and special education, which take a bit longer.
“Our goal is to offer accelerated programs so that students can graduate quickly. We want them to be able to begin using their degrees to earn parnassah either prior to or shortly after marriage, so that they can realize the full benefits of their degrees. This is very important to us because it’s so important to our students,” shares Mrs. Shonek.
Each of these undergraduate degree options is excellent and highly advantageous. Someone interested in a career in accounting would be best served by the BS in accounting program. A student who wants to enter the world of business would find the BS in business management a great choice.
The real prize, however, is the BA in psychology, which takes only one year to acquire and can precipitate entry into a vast array of graduate degree programs. Thousands of Sara Schenirer students have successfully used their psychology degrees to apply to graduate programs in ABA, special education, social work, mental health counseling, law, art therapy, music therapy, and so much more. It’s the undergraduate degree that leads to all fields.
One of the most popular features of all Sara Schenirer programs is the fact that classes take place outside of working hours. In the bachelor’s programs, classes are held at the Lakewood location in person on Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and live online two weeknights each week. This allows students to hold down either full- or part-time jobs while earning their degrees.
“The fact that students work while taking their degree classes is important not only from a financial standpoint, but from an experience perspective as well. So much of what they learn in the courses translates into real-world experience in their employment setting, and it enhances the educational experience in measurable ways,” explains Mrs. Chumie Meisels.
“I worked as a teacher in the mornings and as a secretary in the afternoons, and I attended school on Sunday mornings and weeknights,” Penina Gross, a Sara Schenirer graduate, explains. “It was an ideal schedule because I gained teaching and work experience while earning my degree, and I also got married with a nice amount in the bank. Some of my friends who attended regular colleges and had daytime classes did not have this benefit.”
While hashkafic oversight and financial aid are great reasons to attend Sara Schenirer, there are many who feel that what makes the experience so special is something else: the outstanding support the school offers all its students.
“They really care about you and want you to be successful,” says Penina. “Every location has a dedicated coordinator who knows every student personally and works with her to ensure that she succeeds and graduates on time. I needed special accommodations when I got married, and my coordinator worked with me to make it work.”
According to Mrs. Shonek, the philosophy that Sara Schenirer operates with is simple. The school recognizes that most of the students come from very frum homes, and the world of college and degrees is foreign to them. Sara Schenirer works to simplify it all and make the process as smooth and manageable as possible.
“You can’t work here if you don’t like helping people,” she shares with a laugh. “It’s what we do all day, every day. Our slogan is, ‘Once a Sara Schenirer student, always a Sara Schenirer student,’ and we live by that credo. We help former students with all sorts of issues, and they marvel at how we make time for them despite the fact that they graduated years ago.”
Students who wish to find out more or apply must act fast if they seek to join for the fall semester. Applying to the program takes time, and documents such as transcripts must be collected and submitted.
Girls who have just returned from seminary should reach out immediately and request more information or set up a time to speak to an adviser. The advisers are experts at helping young women identify their strengths and potential career paths that suit their personality. They offer assistance by phone, email, and personal meetings.
The best way to learn more, says Mrs. Shonek, is to attend the virtual open house. “Our open house takes place on Zoom, and hundreds of people join because we present the information in a clear and understandable way. We stay on until every last question is answered, and participants feel equipped to take the next steps. We have parents and students joining and plenty of advisers on hand to give everyone the attention they require.”
As an added bonus, all attendees of the virtual open house receive a 50-dollar coupon, reducing the application fee by almost 50 percent when redeemed.
The virtual open house will be held on Tuesday, June 22 at 8:00 p.m. Preregistration is required. You can register by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, calling 718-633-8557 ext. 37, or visiting sarasch.com/open-house/
A conversation with Rabbi Elazar Meisels, dean of Sara Schenirer
While preparing this article, I spoke with multiple Sara Schenirer employees, and in the process discovered a feature that is common in successful organizations: every employee views their job not as an occupation but as a mission. They are here to make a difference in people’s lives.
It was also apparent that this attitude comes straight from the top: the longtime dean of Sara Schenirer, Rabbi Elazar Meisels. I caught up with Rabbi Meisels, who graciously agreed to take time from his busy day to answer my questions and share his thoughts.
It’s clear that the staff and faculty at Sara Schenirer see themselves as engaged in a higher calling. What is this mission that they refer to?
Sara Schenirer was conceived by my dear father, Rav Michoel Meisels zt”l, a legendary mechanech and trailblazer in the field of chinuch. In 1982, upon the advice and guidance of his roshei yeshivah Rav Mordechai Gifter and Rav Chaim Stein zt”l, he opened the first frum degree program.
My father’s goal was to train mechanchos in the field of special education and enable them to reach children who were otherwise being written off as lost causes. He was also concerned because attending college was not uncommon in those days, and the spiritual dangers were frightening. By providing a venue through which a Bais Yaakov graduate could earn a degree through frum instructors without ever having to enter a secular college, the danger would be significantly alleviated.
Our employees don’t just seek to empower our students through a quality educational program; they’re also dedicated to ensuring that the program meets the very high hashkafic standards that have been present since its inception. They take this obligation very seriously.
Is your goal to convince students to earn a degree, or are you merely here to provide one if the need arises?
I’ve always been very clear to state publicly that the ideal for every Jewish woman is to be a wife and mother first and foremost. That is the most noble occupation, and fortunate is any woman who can do this. Furthermore, there are many ways for a woman to earn a parnassah without earning a degree.
Our goal is not to convince anyone that earning a degree is a must. Rather, if for any reason a woman wishes to earn a degree, we’re here to ensure that she can do so without compromising her education or Torah values.
How do you choose which degrees to offer?
In line with the point I made above, we are very careful when it comes to selecting which degrees to offer and which to reject. Today, there are many degree programs that offer anything that will earn a profit. We have different criteria for choosing our programs. We are concerned not only with the student’s experience earning the degree, but also with the experience once she graduates and enters the workplace. If the working environment will not be conducive for a frum lifestyle and hashkafah, we won’t offer that degree.
We also seek specifically to offer the types of degrees that can be earned at minimal cost, don’t require constant updating to maintain certification, and can easily lead to jobs that can be done either full- or part-time and still earn a significant salary.
Looking back at 40 years of serving the community, what is the one thing you are most proud of?
I’ve only been in my position for 12 years. Prior to that, my father headed the organization.
Regardless, there is no question that more than any accomplishment, the thing I’m proudest of is how we’ve stuck to our original goals without compromise. We reach out to prominent rabbanim for guidance whenever a sensitive question arises, we follow many of the guidelines that Rav Gifter and Rav Stein set up when we were founded, and we offer the same high-caliber education that ensures that our students receive the best of all worlds.
Thank you, Rabbi Meisels, for your time and insights.