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Next year prisoners will be eligible for Pell Grants under a new proposal from the Education Department that is estimated to benefit around 500,000 people behind bars. Colleges will have an opportunity to launch new programs in prisons, providing a key opportunity for incarcerated individuals to prepare themselves to re-enter society after they serve their time.

There have been limited opportunities to access higher education in prisons since a 1994 law made prisoners ineligible for Pell Grants, federal financial aid for low-income students. In 2016, the Education Department began to offer Pell funding to some colleges to begin offering courses in prisons through the Second Chance Pell experiment.

Under a new proposal released last week, the department would allow any public or private nonprofit college to start a prison education program, following a set of guidelines and an approval process, and will provide Pell Grants, which currently provide up to $6,895 in federal student aid per academic year, to prospective students in prisons starting in July 2023. For-profit colleges will not be eligible to receive Pell funding for prison education programs.

This new proposal will provide new opportunities to many people behind bars. However, advocates and experts still raise concerns about how the department will maintain accessibility and equity in the program.

Expanding Pell Eligibility for Incarcerated Students

The new proposal to expand Pell Grant eligibility has the potential to be beneficial for not only incarcerated students, but for states and colleges that invest in the programs as well.

Obtaining a college degree while in prison has been proven to dramatically increase a person’s ability to successfully re-enter society. Participating in a postsecondary education program while incarcerated lowers the likelihood that a person returns to prison by 48 percent, according to a 2018 study by the Department of Justice. However, several boundaries have kept incarcerated individuals from being able to pursue a degree while serving their time, including lack of income and limited availability of programs.

Rudolph Howell, who served 25 years in federal prison and obtained an associate degree from Taft College, a California community college, while in prison, said that education was instrumental in setting him up for success after release as well as giving him a positive outlet to learn and mature while in prison.

“Even though my body was locked up, it was almost like freeing for my mind,” said Howell.

The new proposal from the Education Department would establish for the first time a set of rules that colleges seeking federal funding must follow to offer courses in prisons that will be eligible for Pell Grants. Currently, many colleges do offer classes in prisons, but they are either funded by the state or they are offered by for-profit colleges that students must pay to attend.

The Second Chance Pell experiment was designed to test out prison education programs, and so far 200 colleges have been selected by the department to offer courses to students in prisons. Between 2016 and 2021, these programs enrolled 28,000 students, 32 percent of whom obtained either a certificate or an associate or bachelor’s degree.

Under the proposal, any public or private college will be able to establish a prison education program through an approval process established by the department.

Under the proposed regulations, colleges will have to undergo a similar process to establishing a branch campus to start a prison education program. First, a college must be in good standing with the Education Department, meaning that it cannot have any flags for predatory behavior in the last five years.

Next, once the college determines the prison it wishes to offer a program in, it must reach out to the entity that oversees that prison, typically the Federal Bureau of Prisons or the state corrections office, to gain approval to start a program. The college will also have to gain approval from an accreditor before offering courses in a prison.

Some colleges are preparing to jump on the opportunity to expand into prisons. In a program created by Ascendium Education in partnership with Jobs for the Future called Ready for Pell, the Arkansas Community College System, the State University of New York’s Research Foundation and 20 colleges in 16 states are preparing to offer courses in prisons once the new regulations go into effect next year.

According to Tom Harnisch, vice president of government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, state colleges have said, “they are very enthusiastic,” about the new proposal from the department and “see this as an opportunity to expand education to a population that has long been neglected in education.”

Although Harnisch has heard some interest from state colleges to expand into prisons after the new proposal goes into effect, he said, “I think it’s still very early in the game right now, but I think that interest in this will pick up in the years ahead.”

Ensuring Program Quality and Access

Higher education programs in prisons are required to operate in the “best interest” of the students they serve by ensuring that incarcerated students are earning a quality education.

First, all prison education programs must ensure that the credits students earn through their courses can be transferred to at least one other institution in the state where the prison is located.

Additionally, incarcerated students will not be able to pursue programs that lead to a career that is closed to individuals with their conviction.

The department will also monitor how many incarcerated students are being enrolled at prison education programs to ensure that a college is not enrolling a disproportionately large number of students in prisons. This requirement ensures that colleges are not using prison education programs as a tactic to get more federal Pell Grant funding, a concern that was noted by advocates of expanded Pell Grants in prisons in the past.

The department will also collect information, reported by the oversight entity of the prison, on the release data of students enrolled in the program and whether their credits were able to be transferred successfully.

To ensure that the programs offered in prisons are the same quality as those offered by a college to nonincarcerated students, the oversight entity will also be required to report program completion, job placement and recidivism rates, as well as the salary earned by individuals who complete prison education programs to the Education Department. If a program fails to meet these standards, it can be suspended.

Barriers Still Exist for Incarcerated Students

Even with the accountability metrics the department has proposed to ensure prison education programs are operating in the best interest of the students, many advocates still express concerns with possible issues in incarcerated individuals being able to access college while in prison.

First, an incarcerated person is largely limited to programs offered at the particular prison where they are imprisoned. Rebecca Villarreal, senior director at Jobs for the Future’s Center for Justice and Economic Advancement, said that currently many people will attend many education programs at different prisons as they move through the carceral system. If these students are utilizing Pell Grants, however, they will have to remain in the same program.

“I think that the devil is certainly in the details in how those programs are collaborating and coordinating amongst each other in a particular state,” said Villarreal.

Some prisons grant prisoners the ability to transfer to a prison that offers an education program that aligns with their goals after release. However, Howell stated that prison staff is not always supportive of students in prison education programs.

“The main [barrier] was the prison and the staff, because a lot of them are very resistant even on the face of it, even though they might look like they are with it,” said Howell.

Villarreal said that it will be important for academic advisers and other educational resources to be available in prisons, both to ensure that prisoners can navigate the best program for their goals but also to ensure that they have the same opportunities as students who are not in prisons.

Many prisons also lack the infrastructure, such as physical space, staff and technology needed to support a prison education program. NPR reported in 2020 that the Illinois prison education program found that lack of funding and teachers led to long wait lists for inmates to start programs.

Bradley Custer, a higher education senior policy analyst at the think tank the Center for American Progress, expressed concern that the reporting requirement might deter both colleges or correction agencies from allowing prison education programs in their facilities.

“Either colleges or the correctional facilities are going to find that complying with all these new rules is so burdensome that they don’t even want to participate, and if that’s true, we are going to have major access issues, because it’s possible that in some states the corrections agency might just reject most or all the prison education applications coming in,” said Custer.

Additionally, concerns have been raised about the possibility for technology companies to benefit from expanded Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated students. Although most colleges provide in-person course offerings in prisons, some have opted to partner with technology companies to deliver their courses remotely.

A 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office analyzed the Second Chance Pell experiment and found several barriers that kept prisoners from being able to take advantage of the program, including meeting Pell Grant eligibility standards and applying for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

For example, if a student is currently in default on their federal student loans, they are ineligible for Pell Grants. A recent study by the Student Borrower Protection Center and the National Consumer Law Center found borrowers in prison are at higher risk of default on their student loans due to limited access to phones and internet needed to communicate with their loan servicer. The 2019 GAO report found that 10 percent of incarcerated individuals who submitted FAFSAs to take part in prison education programs had existing federal student loans in default—compared to 2 percent of the general population at the time.

However, incarcerated borrowers who have defaulted on their student loans could soon be given a “fresh start.” The Education Department announced in April that it will include incarcerated borrowers in a currently unfinished plan to put borrowers in default back in good standing.

These same barriers could also create complications for incarcerated students applying for federal student aid through the FAFSA, a federal tool that collects income information to determine eligibility for federal financial aid like Pell Grants. Prisoners may have difficulties obtaining financial documents needed to prove income, residency and other requirements of the FAFSA while incarcerated.

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