After a thirty-year absence, July 2023 marks the full return of federal Pell Grants for incarcerated students and a new chapter of hope for a better future.
One such incarcerated student is San Quentin resident Michael Keith Moore, 61, who graduated from Mount Tamalpais College with an associate degree in Liberal Arts. He is hoping to get a Pell Grant so he can afford to complete a bachelor’s degree through Adams State University’s correspondence prison education program.
“I see my pursuit of a higher education as my path toward being a success right now before I am released from prison,” Moore said. “Education is the key to opening all of life’s secrets, and is the one tool that will help you successfully engineer your way through life.”
Yet with this hope comes further obstacles that incarcerated students must overcome if they wish to realize the promise of a college degree funded by the federal scholarship program for low-income students.
Charlotte West, who reports on postsecondary education in prisons for Open Campus, wrote in an article in the USA TODAY that not all incarcerated students will receive the same college opportunities, and many remain in the dark about their options.
Under the new Pell Grant rules, the maximum annual award is $7,895, which is provided directly to the college to pay for tuition, books, and fees for first-time undergraduate degrees or certificates up to the bachelor level. There is also a lifetime limit of 12 full-time semesters of eligibility and students must maintain a GPA of 2.0 or higher.
Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Education has also removed a big obstacle to receiving Pell Grants — defaulted federal student loans — with its “fresh start” initiative that is included in applications.
In addition, the Department is creating a paper-based application with a streamlined verification process for incarcerated applicants, which will be available from the Federal Student Aid Knowledge Center website after July 1.
However, incarcerated students cannot just apply for a Pell Grant on their own. Students must coordinate their applications through a Pell-approved college program.
Every college that wants to offer Pell-funded courses to incarcerated students — whether in-person, online, or through correspondence — will need to have its prison education program approved by each state or correctional agency.
Colorado-based Adams State University, which offers correspondence college courses in over 350 correctional facilities, is working on obtaining Pell-approval in Colorado first and then in other states. According to Lauren Reed, the interim director of its prison education program, ASU has begun the approval process for California but she cautioned that it may take until 2028 for some states to be fully approved.
The bottom line is that only a limited number of correctional facilities will be approved to offer Pell-funded courses by July 1, 2023.
Reed noted that if incarcerated students already applied for a Pell Grant through FAFSA and received a “Student Aid Report” stating the amount of scholarship funding available to them, it does not mean they will be receiving a Pell Grant.
Rather, incarcerated students must wait until July 1, use the application form specifically for incarcerated students, and coordinate their application with a college approved by their state and facility to offer Pell-funded courses.
In her article, West writes that some states with established college programs, such as California, will be using Pell funding to expand bachelor’s programs. Others will be building from the ground up, while some states might not participate at all.
And while the new Pell Grants rules removed all federal barriers to eligibility related to length of sentence or type of offense, states still have broad discretion over who can take classes behind bars, meaning incarcerated people in some states will be largely left behind.
Studies show that receiving a college education in prison increases the chances of securing a job after release, reduces recidivism, and helps to create a more positive prison culture.
However, incarcerated people in less than a third of state and federal prisons can currently access higher education, and many offerings do not lead to an academic degree.
Pell Grants will be a game changer for incarcerated students who cannot afford tuition yet want to transform their lives through higher education, but only if and when they can access them.
By Pheng Ly and Joshua Strange, Staff Writers