New regulations will allow incarcerated students to qualify for federal financial aid for college in the form of Pell Grants beginning in July of 2023. This will have tremendous benefits for those seeking higher education behind bars, but is not without concerns about how the grants will be implemented in prison.
Incarcerated students once relied on Pell Grants to cover the cost of tuition and textbooks, but in 1994 Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which banned them from eligibility.
Under the Obama Administration, a pilot program known as the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative allowed incarcerated students at selected institutions to receive Pell Grants. Then in Dec. 2020, Congress restored eligibility to all incarcerated people in both federal and state custody, whether in prison, jail, halfway houses, or work camps.
“Finishing the associate degree is at the top of my priority. But to go further, I need help getting a Pell Grant because I cannot afford the tuition,” said Tu Tran, who is enrolled in San Quentin’s Mount Tamalpais College, which offers in-person college preparatory coursework and associate degrees.
For associate degrees, incarcerated students in California can already qualify for state-based financial aid through the California College Promise Grant. However, those who wish to obtain a bachelor’s degree must typically enroll in a correspondence college program and pay for it out of their own funds. The total cost for earning such a two-year college degree is around $12,000 to $22,000 — an insurmountable barrier for most.
Eligibility for federal Pell Grants will remove this barrier and open doors for greatly increased college programming for incarcerated students.
Prison education advocates agree the restored eligibility is monumental, but have concerns over potential implementation problems and quality control for college programs, an article in Diverse Issues in Higher Education reported in January. Advocates caution that predatory practices could thrive if guidelines are not effective and actively enforced.
“I love the potential,” said Dr. Jody Lewen, founder and president of Mt. Tam College. “And I hope I’m wrong, but I’m very concerned that without any mechanism for compelling schools to provide quality programs this will basically be like blood in the water with the incarcerated student essentially becoming prey.”
At a time when colleges face declining enrollments due to the student debt crisis and the pandemic, there are intense financial incentives to enroll inmates who can now qualify for federal aid, regardless of their readiness or the quality of the program’s offerings.
Dr. Mary Gould, director of the Alliance for Higher Education in Prisons, further reiterated that there is an established pattern of giving incarcerated people substandard resources because something is viewed as being better than nothing.
“We’re constantly concerned about incarcerated students as a vulnerable population,” Gould said. “And we instead need to approach them in higher education in similar ways as we do first-generation students and students from economically disenfranchised communities.”
Last fall, the Department of Education (ED) assembled a subcommittee of education stakeholders to develop rules for the expansion of Pell Grants to incarcerated students, including regulations governing participating colleges.
“If you really want to create federal funding for this, I think you should probably create block grants and tie them to a clear, detailed set of standards, as well as a concrete system for ensuring compliance,” Dr. Lewen said. She also noted there is a lifetime limit on the number of Pell Grants a person can receive, which may affect some who attended college prior to their incarceration.
Additionally, Dr. Gould calls for the reporting responsibilities to shift to the colleges themselves as opposed to the Department of Corrections, who she noted would handle most of the reporting as is currently proposed. She further suggested that a panel of prison education experts should be a part of the governing body to guide the ED accreditation process for prison education programs.
However, an analysis of the proposed regulations by the Vera Institute of Justice explains that any participating college will have extensive reporting requirements, including length of waitlists, degree outcomes, post-release continued education, employment, income, and recidivism.
In a follow up interview with SQ News, Dr. Lewen emphasized most people in prison are not ready for college. They may need to get their GED first, and improve their reading and writing abilities and conquer basic math. “A lot of what we do is help students overcome math phobias,” she said.
She noted this is partly why in-person instruction is so valuable. Not everyone is a good fit for independent correspondence-based programs. Some people need a teacher to help them overcome social and psychological obstacles from their past bad experiences with school.
The Rising Scholars Network is working to expand access to community college education for incarcerated students throughout the state, especially through in-person instruction. Within their network, approximately 20 community colleges currently serve about 14,000 students in 35 prisons in California.
However, demand exceeds the amount of classroom space presently offered by prisons. As long as this bottleneck for in-person instruction exists, correspondence programs will remain the primary pathway for incarcerated students to earn college degrees.
“For the California community colleges, it is important to view incarcerated students as part of a whole student body in a whole system,” said Rising Scholars’ Rebecca Sullivan Silbert, according to the article in Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “That way if they are transferred from prison to prison, for example, they can transfer from community college to community college.”
Part of being able to transfer successfully means ensuring that college courses offered under Pell Grants funded programs are in fact transferable to other colleges or higher-degree programs. Some incarcerated students have earned their associate degree only to find they could not qualify for a bachelor’s program because some of their classes were not transferable.
Silbert emphasized they are “focused on making sure that the (incarcerated) students reach their degree, which they do so in a reasonable time, that they are able to transfer if they want to, and that they have clear advising and academic support to complete those degrees.”
Finally, Silbert recommended that college programs have advisers available to help incarcerated students access and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (fafsa.gov) forms used to apply for Pell Grant. Incarcerated people do not have access to the internet, she noted, and trying to gather the necessary financial information to complete the application process can be a challenge.
According to the Vera Institute analysis, the new regulations have greatly streamlined the application process. People who do not make enough income to file taxes will qualify for Pell Grants without extensive financial information being required, which includes most incarcerated students.
These new application forms are scheduled to be available for incarcerated students beginning on Oct. 1, 2022.
“Bringing Pell Grants back to the incarcerated means giving prisoners more job opportunities upon their release. It’s going to offer more hope for a future outside of prison — this is going to really help with recidivism,” said Brian Asey, who is about to graduate from Mt. Tam with an associate’s degree. “Yeah, I can’t wait to jump on this myself.”
By Dao Ong and Joshua Strange