As Pell Grants open up for incarcerated students, programs ready for growth

by Joseph K. Clark

During his fourth year inside Fulton County, Georgia’s correctional system, Larry Jackson became the subject of an experiment in prison education.

The facility needed more medical help, so it started training its incarcerated population. He earned a nursing assistant certification for free and worked primarily as an orderly for the system. But the program was eventually disbanded. By the time Jackson, who entered the system at age 23, was released in 2016, at age 38, his credential had expired, giving him almost nothing to show for his work.

incarcerated

Now, a bipartisan group of advocates hopes people in Jackson’s situation will benefit from a provision tucked into the 5,600-page federal spending bill Congress passed late last year. It lifted a 26-year-old ban that blocked incarcerated people from receiving Pell Grants, federal aid for undergraduates with high financial need. While few incarcerated people have college credentials, many have indicated they want to grow their education while behind bars. The expansion builds on Second Chance Pell, a pilot program that gave financial aid to about 17,000 incarcerated students from 2016 to 2019.

“If I had access to that, I could have gotten a degree that didn’t expire,” Jackson said. Proponents of the change, which goes into effect by mid-2023, hope it will enable more people to access higher education while incarcerated. But they note that its implementation presents various challenges, including addressing limitations that kept the pilot narrow and avoiding the abuse of federal dollars by seeking more transparency.

From tough-on-crime to Second Chance Pell

The sweeping 1994 crime bill banned incarcerated people from obtaining Pell Grants. In 2015, the Obama administration launched the Second Chance Pell program, which former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos expanded last spring.

Students earned more than 4,500 degrees and certificates through the program as of 2019, said Margaret diZerega, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections director. The 2020 expansion doubled the number of participating colleges to 130 schools across 42 states and the District of Columbia. The latest legislation significantly expands its scope. The Vera Institute has estimated that nearly half a million incarcerated people would be eligible for Pell Grants if the ban was lifted.

While that’s only about a fifth of the U.S. incarcerated population, advocates hope the change will give Second Chance Pell staying power. The legislative expansion was a relief to Chris Agans, a Rutgers University employee who oversees the administration of New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP), an association of New Jersey higher education institutions that help incarcerated people access college classes.

Through NJ-STEP, students earn degrees from Rutgers or Raritan Valley Community College, which are the department’s experimental sites for Second Chance Pell. Other universities contribute courses or faculty. NJ-STEP was founded in 2012 and initially used private and university funding to help people in prison afford and access education. Since then, Agans said, more than 250 students have earned associate degrees, and 48 have earned bachelor’s while incarcerated. More than 100 earned a bachelor’s after their release and 16 went on to earn a master’s degree.

“The permanency of Second Chance Pell is a tremendous boon to existing programs which have been living in this year-to-year attempt at creating budgets,” he said, noting that it can allow for investments in infrastructure that could make these programs feel more connected to their schools.

The first step for Andrea Cantora, a professor at the University of Baltimore’s School of Criminal Justice, will be to tell the roughly 100 applicants who her school’s program has rejected that they might now be eligible.

U of Baltimore’s Second Chance College Program lets students at a Maryland prison study toward a Bachelor of Arts in Human Services Administration. The program has served 96 students since 2016; 48 are enrolled this semester. None have graduated yet, though Cantora expects a large group to do so in 2023. Some were transferred to other facilities, which meant they could no longer participate.

“If there’s a huge increase in participants, we’re going to have to talk about expanding our program to serve more students — which means we’ll need more staff and more space,” she said.

‘Running a college in someone else’s house.’

Even with more federal support, there are significant hurdles to increasing college access among incarcerated students. Some of these were pointed out in a 2019 Congressional report evaluating a potential expansion, which also bemoaned the “little research on the best way to deliver post-secondary education in prisons.”

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