You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

A group of students in caps and gowns sits in front of a professor at a podium. A blue “Perimeter College” banner is in the background.

Georgia State University leaders concluded the university’s Prison Education Project must come to an end because of a budget shortfall and the costs of coming into compliance with federal rules for Pell reinstatement.

Georgia Department of Corrections

Perimeter College, a community college that’s part of Georgia State University, celebrated its first graduating class of incarcerated students last year. Nine students at Walker State Prison, clad in caps and gowns, earned associate degrees in general studies through the university’s Prison Education Project (GSUPEP).

The program, which started eight years ago, currently operates in two state prisons and one federal prison and serves a total of roughly 60 students. University officials are planning to shut down the program over the next few years to the shock and dismay of professors and students who thought the program was thriving.

Cynthia Lester, interim dean of Perimeter College, sent a November message to faculty and staff members involved in the program explaining that it couldn’t afford to maintain the program after the restoration of Pell Grants to incarcerated students. The reinstatement of the grants, which officially took effect last July after a 26-year ban, requires college programs in prisons to meet strict federal standards to ensure their students can receive the funding.

Georgia State has been participating in Second Chance Pell, a pilot program started in 2015 that allowed incarcerated students to receive Pell Grants in select programs. Now, these institutions are required to comply with new regulations for their incarcerated students to receive the aid going forward.

Lester wrote that the university’s “current financial constraints” and the “substantial administrative demands” required to meet the federal standards means “Georgia State University is unable to commit additional funding and administrative support to the program at this time.

“The decision was not made lightly, but it does reflect the university’s commitment to responsible fiscal management and ensuring existing educational initiatives receive the necessary support and resources,” she said.

Lester assured faculty and staff members that there would be a teach-out process so current students could finish up their degrees before closure.

The news surprised faculty members involved in the program.

“For me, it came out of nowhere,” said Katherine Perry, an English professor at Perimeter College and one of the co-founders of the program. “My reaction was shock and devastation and heartbreak. I just feel like the university’s broken my heart, frankly.”

Perry said even though the university has granted the program a few years to wind down and for student to graduate, her students at Walker State Prison are worried they won’t be able to finish their degrees. She tried to assure them that the credits they’ve earned would transfer to another institution.

“There was a lot of fear,” she said.

Faculty, students and alumni have since signed petitions against the decision.

“We urge you to continue supporting GSUPEP and its vital role in advancing the principles of inclusivity and educational access within our institution and beyond,” a petition from students and alumni read. “As proud members of the Panther family, we stand united in our commitment to ensuring that all individuals, regardless of their circumstances, have the opportunity to pursue higher education.”

A letter to Provost Nicolle Parsons-Pollard, signed by 100 faculty members and counting, argued the program “embodies everything our university stands for: growth, empowerment, and leadership.”

At least one donor, however, has indicated the possibility of providing financial support to stave off the program’s closure.

LaTonya Penny, chief executive of the Laughing Gull Foundation, wrote in an April statement that she was “deeply disappointed” by the decision to close the program and urged the administration to reconsider. She noted that the foundation has given $432,500 to the program since 2018.

“The program’s steady growth and impact over the years are a testament to its effectiveness and importance,” Penny wrote. “… We are eager to be a partner in this effort and support Georgia State University to find a path forward for GSU’s Prison Education Program. We have and will continue to offer our time, resources, and connections to ensure incarcerated students are heard, seen, and valued.”

The Bigger Picture

Georgia State had already arranged for the University of West Georgia to take over the newest branch of the program at the federal prison, but, so far, there are no other universities poised to take over at the other two facilities, Walker State Prison and Phillips State Prison, Perry said.

A statement from the provost’s office, provided to Inside Higher Ed, noted that the university suffered a $24.4 million budget cut from the state in fiscal year 2024 and expects another funding shortfall next year. The estimated cost of the “instructional and administrative expenses” of operating the program across three prisons is approximately $180,000, plus another $12,000 to hire a graduate student to support the program, costs not covered by donor funding.

The statement also said the requirements to become a federally designated, Pell-eligible prison education program were overly “complex.”

“GSU would have to navigate a multifaceted process over two years. This process involves submitting substantive changes for additional locations, undergoing evaluations by accrediting bodies, and adhering to various stringent standards,” the statement read.

University officials said the university also would have to provide “extensive services” to incarcerated students, including tutoring, counseling, career guidance and seamless credit transfer, as well as “ongoing responsibilities” such as tracking students’ future job placements and recidivism rates.

The statement also noted that university leaders are in discussions with donors about starting a new program for students “who have a personal experience with incarceration, either directly or through a parent or guardian,” which would provide academic advising, among other wraparound services, and about 50 mini-grants to help with their food and housing costs.

Ruth Delaney, director for the Unlocking Potential Initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice, said some of the student services Georgia State cited as financial strains are routine supports they should already be offering incarcerated students, such as academic advising.

She noted that while this is a “flux” period in which higher ed institutions are working hard to comply with federal regulations designed to ensure college in prison programs are as high-quality as other college programs, Georgia State is “unique” in deciding to drop its program.

She noted that some higher ed institutions that participated in Second Chance Pell decided not to seek the federal designation process because their programs struggled to get off the ground during COVID or they found other sources of funding.

But she said overall, informal surveys of college and corrections officials show Pell reinstatement spurred more interest in providing these programs, not less. College in prison programs are expected to expand in 44 states as a result.

“It’s always disappointing to see a college step back,” she said. “There are at least 750,000 students in prison that are academically ready to enroll. And we’d like to see more seats opening up for them to get that opportunity.”

She noted that public state universities, such as Georgia State, do have added financial challenges because Pell Grants don’t entirely cover their tuition, leaving a funding gap the colleges have to cover.

“So, it is a story we’ve heard before from state universities in particular,” she said, “because they tend to have fewer resources available to them that are flexible, more limited ability to seek private grants, those sorts of things that can just make it much harder to negotiate the funding environment.”

Nonetheless, she believes state universities are “a crucial partner in this work.”

Formerly incarcerated students “will turn to those universities to enroll, to complete a bachelor’s degree or program that they have not completed” because these institutions are expansive and cost effective, she said. She hopes state university leaders will turn to donors, organizations and other universities that can offer advice and help them build out college-in-prison programs, despite the challenges.

Perry said while no other university has taken similar steps as Georgia State, “there are lots of grumbles about how to make it work.” She believes there might need to be a “table discussion” about “how to make it easier.”

“If a university like Georgia State can’t do it, what happens to the smaller universities who are trying? So, there is a worry” she said.

The Human Toll

Robert Woodrum, associate professor of history at Perimeter College who’s taught in the program since 2018, added that while these programs might not be revenue generators, the long-term “benefits to society are much greater than that immediate cost” and a fulfillment of what he sees as higher ed’s mission.

He said as he gets closer to retirement and thinks about his career, his classes through the Prison Education Project have been the most rewarding.

“It’s been just so meaningful and such a joy," he said. “… You teach the most engaged students you’ve ever taught.”

A former student, Isaac Sandoval, said he never finished the program because he was released from Walker State Prison before he could graduate but it changed the way he thought about himself and changed his life trajectory.

Sandoval, who’s now the director of medical operations for a drug and alcohol treatment center, came into prison with regrets he hadn’t finished his college education. He felt like prison inculcated into him the idea that he’d “squandered” his potential, and after release, he’d work in fast food forever and never have a career.

The program “really showed me like, wow, I do have a lot of potential,” he said. “I am smart. Now that I actually care, it’s coming out in my test scores and my grades … It creates in you an understanding, a belief, that you can rise above your criminal past.”

He said programs like Georgia State’s can reduce recidivism, promote social mobility and be a part of making the state safer. In contrast, barriers to higher ed contribute to poverty and “it’s like a domino effect, one thing after the next resulting from a lack of education that causes men and women to go to prison in the first place.”

“I just do not understand or cannot comprehend the motivation” to conclude “let’s close this thing down.”

Next Story

Written By

More from Diversity