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V6I1: Renewed Hope for Students in Prison with Reinstatement of Pell Grants


Gita Bangera, Senior Vice President, NWCCU

This summer, I had the honor of attending a graduation ceremony unlike any other I have ever attended. There were students, faculty, families, robes, and speeches with one significant difference – it was being held in a prison facility, the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington state. Similar scenes were playing out at prison facilities in other NWCCU states.

The transformation in the students from when they went into the changing space wearing their grey and beige prison outfits to when they emerged wearing their graduations caps and gowns was palpable. They stood a little taller, their shoulders were a bit squarer, and there was a spring in their step as they filed into the room. Equally palpable was the pride that the parents, siblings, partners were feeling as they watched their loved one going through this transformation. What really brought goosebumps out on my skin was watching the children of these graduates as they watched their parent in their regalia – this memory is going to change their own perception of the world as they grow up.

The benefits of providing education to people who are incarcerated are well documented. Post-secondary education in prison results in a 48% reduction in the odds of recidivism, improved likelihood of employment, and the potential to improve public safety. 96 to 98% of the prison population will be released back into the community and providing education in prisons increases the likelihood of their success in the community. In addition, according to the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera), education in prison also leads to higher safety in correctional facilities, a four to five-fold return on investment to taxpayers, and increased likelihood of education for their children and other family members thus impacting whole communities.

As clear as these benefits are, the number of students in prison who can take advantage of these educational opportunities is woefully small due to lack of funding. The graduation ceremonies mentioned earlier were thanks to the Second Chance Pell program, students paying their own way, or philanthropic funding. But change is on its way! New regulations that went into effect on July 1, 2023, reinstate Pell Grants for students in carceral facilities, overturning an almost 30-year ban.

Figure 1. Impact of loss of Pell funding

Providing federal financial aid to students in prisons has been controversial historically. According to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), demand for college classes in prisons surged after the passage of the Title IV Higher Education Act in 1965 and by the early 1990s, there were some 772 programs being offered in 1,287 correctional facilities across the nation. In 1994 the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was passed that banned the use of Pell grants for those who were incarcerated and the number of prison education programs plummeted to low double digits or below and the number of students enrolled in college courses in prison dropped drastically (Fig.1). In 2015, the Department of Education launched the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative (SCP) inviting Institutions of Higher Education to apply to be SCP sites. The incarcerated population in each of the NWCCU states ranges from just under 5,500 in Alaska to 28,000 in Washington, in proportion to the population of the state; these number are higher if we include those under community supervision (Table 1).

Table 1. Incarcerated population in various facilities in NWCCU states including federal, state, juvenile justice, jails etc.

According to Vera, six years of the SCP has enabled 40,000 students in carceral facilities to pursue postsecondary education. In 2020, the FAFSA Simplification Act, as part of the 2020 Consolidation Appropriations Act, reinstated Pell grant eligibility to incarcerated students regardless of sentence length, conviction, or site (please see definition below). Given the high rates of incarceration in the United States and the benefits that education can bring, our member institutions have an opportunity for generational impact. As Vera recently noted, 760,000+ people in Amercian prisons will be eligible for Pell grants when access is reinstated in 2023.

On October 28, 2022, the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) published the final regulations regarding Prison Education Programs (PEPs). PEP can only be offered at locations that are classified as Federal, State, or local penitentiaries, prisons, jails, reformatories, work farms, juvenile justice facilities, or other similar correctional institutions.

A key component of PEPs is the program approval process by the Bureau of Prisons, State department of corrections, or other entity that is responsible for overseeing the correctional facility (the Oversight Entity). Throughout 2023, USDE has been providing additional guidelines on how to implement PEPs for institutions, accreditors and Oversight Entities.

Simply put, for an institution to start offering a Prison Education Program (PEP) at a correctional facility using students’ Pell Grant it needs to follow a three-step process:

  1. Apply and be approved by the Oversight Entity – generally their State’s Department of Corrections (DOC), though it could also be a federal entity, and obtain a Memorandum of Understanding or other written agreement.
  2. Apply and be approved by NWCCU for their additional location (if providing an existing program) and the program (if offering a new program not offered at the main campus).
  3. Apply and be approved by the USDE.

The institution can then implement the program at that facility. The PEP process also requires the institution and the Oversight Entity to set up formal data sharing agreements. NWCCU is required to conduct a site visit to the location within one year but as per NWCCU policy the visit would take place within six months of the PEP implementation. The guidelines also empower the Oversight Entity to conduct an assessment process, which engages key stakeholders, to assess whether the program serves the “best interest” of the students in the PEP. NWCCU will participate and provide non -binding input into this assessment process to the Oversight Entity in each of our seven states. NWCCU is also required to approve the methodology used by the institution and the Oversight Entity to determine that the PEP meets the same standards as substantially similar programs at the institution’s main campus. Revised Experiment SCP institutions will follow a similar path, but they have up to three years to achieve specific milestones that parallel the three -step process above.

As an immigrant to the United States, I have always seen this country as the land of second chances as the erasers on the ends of American pencils seemed to indicate. As PEPs are implemented all over the country, there is hope that graduations like the one I attended will become the new normal and students who are incarcerated will get a true second chance in life!

As with all things related to students in prison, Vera is available to provide technical assistance to all the stakeholders in this process.

If your institution would like to offer a PEP, please contact Gita Bangera or your institution’s NWCCU liaison.


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