Margaret diZerega, Initiative Director, Unlocking Potential, Vera Institute of Justice
This fall, millions of students across the country will return to classrooms for the start of the school year. After shifts to hybrid learning platforms due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the return to face-to-face instruction still feels novel. For students in prison, however, this year holds additional significance.
The 2022-2023 academic year marks the last year that most students in prison will be banned from applying for Pell Grants, a form of federal need-based financial aid. The upcoming reinstatement of Pell eligibility on July 1, 2023, holds tremendous promise for more than 760,000 academically eligible people currently in prison, their families and communities, and the colleges that take advantage of the moment to reach this new pool of students. There is no better time than now for colleges interested in serving students in prisons to begin planning.
The origins of the Pell ban date back to the 1994 Crime Bill. Despite the benefits of higher education, “tough-on-crime” ideology prioritized punishment over rehabilitation and inspired lawmakers to ban access to this important form of financial aid. Without Pell Grants, many students in prison were suddenly unable to afford the high cost of tuition and program enrollment declined. The number of colleges teaching courses in prison quickly followed suit, leaving most prisons without any postsecondary education opportunities for years.
In late 2015, the Obama administration launched the Second Chance Pell (SCP) Experimental Sites Initiative, vastly expanding college in prison across the United States. Through SCP, participating colleges can access students’ Pell eligibility and launch postsecondary education programs in prisons. In 2016, 67 colleges in 28 states were selected. SCP was subsequently expanded in 2020 and 2022, bringing the current total to 200 colleges in 48 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico – Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) provides support to 14 SCP institutions. The Vera Institute of Justice, the designated technical assistance provider for the 200 colleges and their correctional agency partners participating in the SCP Experiment, reported that from 2016 to 2021, more than 28,000 students enrolled in postsecondary education, and 9,000 have earned either an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, or a certificate or diploma credentials in that span of time.
Building on the success of SCP, Vera and partners sought a broader fix to the issue of college affordability for students in prison through federal legislation. In December 2020, President Trump signed the FAFSA Simplification Act, a product of Vera and partners’ advocacy, into law. Among other changes to the FAFSA form and federal financial aid policies, the FAFSA Simplification Act restores Pell Grant eligibility to all students who are incarcerated, regardless of conviction type or sentence length, and allows them to participate in approved postsecondary educational programs.
The reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility to all people in prison provides a vital opportunity for existing SCP colleges and any other colleges that wish to provide approved programming to students. Beyond the individual students’ success, studies have shown the wider positive impacts that access to higher education has on communities. We have learned, for example, that correctional facilities with postsecondary education programs are safer for the people who live and work in prisons because education improves students’ sense of worth as well as communication and problem-solving skills. More than 95 percent of the prison population today will be released at some point in the future. Postsecondary education in prison reduces the odds of recidivism upon release, thereby making communities safer and saving taxpayers money.
Expanded access to college in prison is also a racial equity strategy. Prison populations are largely made up of low-income and disproportionately Black, brown, Latinx, and First Nation/Indigenous people. College programs in prison increase employment and earning potential, offering graduates a second chance upon release. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 70 percent of all jobs in 2027 will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school. However, only 15 percent of incarcerated adults earn a postsecondary degree or certificate either prior to or during incarceration. Of that 15 percent, only 1 percent earn a bachelor’s degree. The reinstatement of Pell offers an important opportunity to expand access to higher education and advance racial and economic equity. These impacts extend well beyond the graduate and positively impact the families and communities most harmed by mass incarceration.
For colleges wishing to explore postsecondary programming in prison, Vera and NWCCU offer the following recommendations:
This is an exciting time in education. The reinstatement of Pell eligibility will be pivotal for thousands of people behind bars. With more than 760,000 students potentially becoming eligible for Pell Grants come July 2023, colleges may see prison education programming as an effective way to fulfill their mission of serving the broader community, nurturing diverse learning environments, recruiting excellent students, and potentially countering declining enrollment. Colleges have already been positive change agents in this space. NWCCU and Vera look forward to helping existing programming and new programming as Pell expansion begins.
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