Each is a beit midrash — bookshelves lined with the same shiny spines — but the similarity ends there. The hall of study at Stern, the women’s college of the Orthodox Yeshiva University, is an elegant, airy place to pore over books. The beit midrash at secular Queens College is very different: a cramped closet, smelling of cooking oil, in which boxes of used holiday decorations bump up against the folding tables that serve as desks.

Ilana Barta and Stern College would seem to be bashert, made for each other. She is a pre-med student also majoring in Spanish and Hebrew, and an alumna of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck and Migdal Oz, a women’s seminary, in Israel. Stern offered Barta first one scholarship and then another, bigger one.

Yet Barta chose Queens College.

“At Stern, there are always people in the beit midrash,” she said. “The beit midrash here is just a side room. It’s a very small room. It’s not lively.”

Why did she — and many like her — turn Stern down?

It wasn’t just the economy.

Between 2008 and 2011, undergraduate enrollment at Stern and Yeshiva College, YU’s men’s school, was down 8 percent, to 2,853 students, according to YU’s own numbers. The decline is significant in part because YU is struggling to make ends meet.

Back in 2008, it cut $30 million from its budget to offset anticipated losses from a $110 million investment in a vehicle that was itself invested with Ponzi scheme architect Bernard Madoff, who before the scandal broke chaired YU’s business school. In the hope that the economy would rebound, YU’s board let the university run deficits, but has now decided it must balance the books, which means $25 million more in cuts, or 12 percent of the budget excluding its Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Undergraduate tuition is not a major source of YU’s revenue, but the school has set itself a goal of enrolling at least 120 more students by 2013.

Such a modest target contrasts poignantly with President Richard Joel’s grand ambitions for the colleges almost 10 years ago, when he entered office. At his 2003 investiture ceremony, he told the overflow crowd of 2,000 that he wanted Stern and Yeshiva to compete with the Ivy League. After three years on the job, he started to dream that the colleges could grow, by a thousand students. But they have shrunk instead.

The recession didn’t help, but Orthodox students’ taste in higher education is also changing. YU tries to hug the middle, to be a kind of Harvard on the Heights that integrates halachic rabbinic authority into the classic American undergraduate experience of a liberal arts education on a leafy campus.

“There’s no place that can offer what this place can offer,” Joel said with characteristic enthusiasm during one of two interviews in his spacious corner office. “If you’re in our honors program, you’re with students of the same caliber or better than the Ivy League. You’re writing a thesis, and you’re at YU and you’re growing as a Jew.”

Still, as any self-styled moderate can attest, sitting in the center can be scary. Brand-name secular universities are encroaching on YU’s territory from the left; more traditional yeshiva options from the right.

“People who walk in the middle get hit by the traffic going both directions,” said Samuel Heilman, a Queens College sociologist and the author of the 2006 book “Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy.” “For those who want a yeshiva, the university detracts from that, and for those who want a university, the yeshiva detracts.”

The very circumstances behind Joel’s arrival were an indication of how hard the job of leading from the center would be. His hiring was the product of a bitter, protracted search at the end of which the university acknowledged that its ideal candidate — a Torah scholar with secular academic credentials who was also a dynamic fundraiser and competent administrator — just didn’t exist.

The YU when Joel arrived emphasized religious over secular studies, a reflection of American Orthodoxy’s increasingly traditional bent since the 1970s. Indeed, to protest the first election of a layman as president, several leading rabbis at the university’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, or RIETS, called for prayer and a public fast. In their eyes, Joel’s appointment was particularly provocative because as the top executive of Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, he had championed “multicultural Judaism.”

When Joel took over at YU, the undergraduate colleges were relying heavily on adjunct faculty, he said. There were gaping holes in the course offerings. Students earned their degree by cobbling together as few as five semesters on campus with credit from yeshiva study in Israel.

Yeshiva College had become “a first-class yeshiva with a few college courses attached to it,” wrote Steven Bayme, an alum who has also taught there, in “My Yeshiva College,” an anthology published by the school in 2006.

But there was also another reason to upgrade the college’s secular offerings: bodies. Lander College for Men in Queens had emerged in 2000 to outflank YU on the right and began poaching students and faculty immediately. By 2006, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva’s rabbinical school, was noting to a campus newspaper that students were choosing Lander College over YU to avoid academic exposure to the Christian Bible.

Joel’s decision to cultivate the colleges’ more liberal applicant pool — the students who would consider both YU and secular colleges — was also a strategic one.

“Richard Joel was concerned that we have quality secular education so that Yeshiva could compete for those students and parents who want their sons and daughters to get the best possible secular education,” said Rabbi Yosef Blau, YU’s senior maschgiach ruchani, or spiritual adviser.

‘Reinventing’ Yeshiva

The instinct to boost enrollment by offering more secular courses is common in the world of religious higher education, said Jim Hearn, associate director of the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia.

“Do you want to continue to be distinctive, or do you want to some degree to begin secularizing to attract different markets? How can you preserve the core of the institution while adapting to changing circumstances?” Hearn said.

Often, he said, schools keep their undergraduate programs traditional while offering secular professional programs, such as executive business degrees, to a broader market. In the Touro College system, of which Lander College is a part, about 12,000 of its 19,000 students are enrolled in its graduate and professional programs, which include one of the country’s largest medical schools. While YU’s numbers were slipping, enrollment at the Touro colleges competing with YU rose by 6 percent, said Touro College President Dr. Alan Kadish.

Joel diverged slightly from this model, although he also identified graduate schools and academic centers as a means of raising revenue and YU’s profile. An executive MBA program is in the works, for example. And Joel created the Center for the Jewish Future, whose mission is to spread YU’s values throughout and beyond the Orthodox world. But Joel did not declare the colleges sacrosanct. Instead, he made them a centerpiece of his project, speaking frequently of his desire to “re-invent” and “re-imagine” them.

He created 64 new tenure-track faculty positions and initiated new master’s degrees, like economics, both to enhance existing departments and to entice undergraduates with joint BA/MA programs. He “re-invented” the undergraduate Syms School of Business, which is trying to secure accreditation and is starting an honors program. He cut the ribbon on a luminous new beit midrash on the main Washington Heights campus and made other aesthetic improvements, like turning the university’s section of 185th Street into a pedestrian mall.

“I’m a spender,” said Joel, who saw a generously funded program of improvements and innovations as necessary to fulfill his expansive vision for the school.

By 2006, he had set a goal of Yeshiva and Stern enrolling 4,000 students, up from about 3,000.

And some students did respond to Joel’s initiatives. Enrollment at YU from some of its longstanding feeder schools rose as educators there applauded the new focus on secular academics and campus life.

Naty Katz, executive director of the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass., said, “There’s no place else where you can have a one-on-one relationship with your rebbe and with your chemistry teacher.” More Maimonides graduates have chosen YU in the last four years than previously, he said.

Students themselves stuck around longer, in part because the university discontinued a system that had allowed them to test out of certain courses through placement exams. In 2004, 32 percent of undergraduates graduated after only five semesters on campus; by 2011, only 12 percent did so, spokesman Mayer Fertig said.

But Joel needs more students to come and to stay if he is to reverse the dip in enrollment and see YU grow as he’d dreamed. He says he’s “optimistic” about future enrollment based on year-over-year increases in the school’s mid-year registration of students from Israel.

Economic Priorities

Of course, the economy remains a challenge. Ilana Barta, the Queens College sophomore, was loath to take on the cost of YU with the expense of medical school ahead of her. For New York State residents, it cost $23,000 to attend and live at Queens College in the 2011-2012 academic year; YU costs more than double that.

Financial constraints have driven even legacy students to YU’s competitors.

“I always thought of course I would go to YU,” said Queens College sophomore Eli Weinstein, who also learns at the Madreigas HaAdam yeshiva in Fresh Meadows, Queens. Joel calls Queens College his most serious competition, because students there can do yeshiva study in the morning and return to campus for class in the afternoon, at a significant savings over YU.

Slumped in a chair in the middle of the Queens campus Hillel, tzitzit dangling toward the floor, Weinstein looked a little depressed. “It’s like I was born to go there,” he said of YU. “My father went there. And then I realized I just couldn’t do it.”

YU is at a disadvantage in a soft economy because by the time its students enter those hallowed halls, many of their parents have already paid the equivalent of a college education in the form of day school tuition.

But the economy can’t be the whole story because most of YU’s peers are not struggling in the same way. In YU’s category of 33 private research universities, only two others — Brandeis and Carnegie Mellon — had fewer applications in 2010 than in 2007, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. YU also accepted a higher percentage of its applicants in 2010 than in 2007: 72 percent, compared with 69 percent.

What’s more, 14 other schools in YU’s peer group — including Columbia, 60 blocks south of YU — saw applications increase by about 30 percent, according to NCES data. A weak economy makes those schools seem even more desirable, and YU isn’t perceived as their competitor yet, said Hearn of the Institute of Higher Education. YU costs, however, only slightly less to attend.

“I really think the problem with YU today is the money,” Weinstein said. “It’s like they [YU officials] want to be Harvard or Yale, but they’re not even close.”

Further to the right on the Orthodox spectrum, a growing number of students are choosing the Lander Colleges. A year of study and housing at Lander College for Women costs about $23,000, but most students do not live in the dorms and pay only $16,000 for tuition and fees.

“There was a financial consideration, but their recruitment office was phenomenal,” said Aliza Ganchrow, a Lander freshman majoring in English. She was also accepted to Stern’s honors program and to University of California Los Angeles. “They [Lander officials] decided they wanted me, and they made the program sound so appealing.”

Better recruiting is Joel’s answer to declining enrollment. Back in June, he tasked Rabbi Kenneth Brander, head of the Center for the Jewish Future, with a special assignment: to “re-invent recruitment strategies,” as Joel put it to the Stern College student newspaper, The Observer, in an October interview. The school is inviting guidance counselors to visit. And Joel says he himself has become more involved, e-mailing parents and wooing students attending Israeli yeshivas during their post-high school gap year.

“Every student has to matter,” Joel said. “It has to be that personal. It’s not just about ‘Happy to meet you, here’s my card, call me if you have questions.’ We have to be more aggressive than that.”

YU’s financial troubles will make Brander’s difficult job harder.

The university is running the largest cash flow deficits of any school evaluated by the rating agency Moody’s, which said in June that YU’s bonds had become a riskier investment. It doesn’t generate enough out of its regular sources of revenue, like tuition, to pay its everyday costs, like professor salaries.

The school has already made cuts, slashing $30 million from its budget in 2008. This year’s further cuts, including a number of adjunct professor slots, are hardly a selling point for students. They mean larger class sizes — from an average of about 20 to up to 40 — and fewer course offerings.

The full professorships Joel created are safe, but the faculty is feeling the budget crunch nonetheless.

“Things aren’t free and easy,” said James Kahn, the chair of the economics department, who said that in order to pay competitive salaries, budget constraints might prompt him to consider hiring a less expensive, less experienced professor.

Under these circumstances, the school can’t offer any more money for financial aid. Parents and guidance counselors share a perception that since the recession, aid for non-honors students has dropped off sharply. YU spokesman Mayer Fertig denies this. The honors program requires a combined SAT score of 1400.

It’s true that 78 percent of Yeshiva and Stern students received scholarships in the 2009-2010 academic year, according to the most recent data available. That’s a higher percentage than at the research universities considered YU’s peers by the NCES, but the amount of grant aid was also lower on average at YU. For the average undergraduate scholarship recipient, YU ends up costing about as much as an Ivy. YU is cheaper, and it gives grants to more students, but it gives them less.

“YU looks like a bloated institution to me, with the number of faculty they have, and the amount of programs they fund,” said one mother who asked to be quoted anonymously because her son is deciding between Yeshiva and Lander College for Men. “And then they say to an average middle-class kid, it’s $46,000, but maybe we’ll make it $40,000.”

The power of the rabbinical school rabbis to intervene in student intellectual and extracurricular life could also undermine efforts to compete with secular colleges. Rabbi Schachter, who objected to the study of the Christian Bible, also told The Commentator he sees the work of Geoffrey Chaucer as expendable and that 50 percent of an art history course is probably ‘avodah zara and gilui arayot’ (idolatry ad licentiousness).”

“Sometimes people feel a little stifled here,” said Chesky Kopel, a senior who chose Yeshiva College in large part because he wants to serve the Modern Orthodox community. “It’s clear that the roshei yeshiva” [heads of the rabbinical school] have a significant say in what happens on campus.”

Kopel cited the rabbis’ influence in the retraction of an invitation to Rabbi Ethan Tucker, head of the yeshiva at the egalitarian Mechon Hadar, to speak at YU. Senior Simi Lampert, co-editor of one of the student newspapers, said the same about the furor that greeted publication of a first-person essay about a sexual encounter between a Stern and a Yeshiva College student.

Some YU students are troubled by this level of rabbinic involvement, although most understand that the process of grappling with the demands of Torah is an essential aspect of both their YU education and Jewish identity.

“YU always had this impossible goal of being a yeshiva and a university,” said Ben Kadish, a senior. “Other places totally ignore this challenge. I hope YU continues to attempt to do [this] even though it is not completely succeeding. We get made fun of by secular colleges for not being a good university, and by other rabbinical schools for not being hard-line enough.”

Under Joel, YU has again risen to its mission of nourishing a Judaism that embraces the work, sometimes joyful, often arduous, of integrating Orthodoxy and modernity. The question — complicated by an uncertain economy — is whether his more expensive aspirations will serve that mission in the face of Orthodoxy’s ongoing fragmentation. With his ambitious upgrades, Joel is reaching out to a particular segment of the YU community. Whether their response will validate his gesture remains to be seen.