After 30 Years, the First Program to Offer Pell Grants to Incarcerated Students Has Launched

Incarcerated student Gabriel Bonilla adjusts a cap for Michael Love, center, while waiting for the start of their graduation ceremony at Folsom State Prison in Folsom, Calif., Thursday, May 25, 2023. After serving more than 35 years in prison, Love is currently enrolled in a master's program at Sacramento State. He is employed by Project Rebound, an organization that assists and mentors formerly incarcerated people as they further their education. Love has also been hired as a teaching aide and will teach freshmen communications students in the fall. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

On a Monday afternoon this January, 16 students gathered in a room at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. They are the first cohort of incarcerated students enrolled in Cal Poly Humboldt’s bachelor’s degree in communications program—one of the first bachelor’s degree programs to be taught in person at a high-security facility in California.

It’s also the first prison education program (PEP) approved by the United States Department of Education (ED) to offer Pell Grants to incarcerated students, who will be able to access this federal financial assistance to pay for school starting in the fall of 2024.

“We’re trying to provide as close to the main campus experience as possible for the students inside,” said Steve Ladwig, the director of the Transformative and Restorative Education Center at Cal Poly Humboldt, who also manages the program at Pelican Bay.

Access to Pell Grants for incarcerated students was officially restored in July 2023—following a nearly three-decade ban that slashed opportunities for people in prison to pursue higher education.

In recent years, the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative provided a limited number of participating colleges with the ability to access Pell Grants to serve students in prison. From 2016 to 2022, more than 40,000 students
participated in the program, which expanded twice and now includes 163 colleges in 48 states, plus the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and Puerto Rico. The initiative’s success paved the way for the wholesale reinstatement of Pell Grants for incarcerated people, which will enable far greater access to postsecondary education for people in prison as colleges launch programs targeted to them.

The benefits of college in prison extend far beyond the walls of the classroom. In addition to creating safer environments for people behind bars, college programs help ensure that people in prison can secure well-paying jobs when they return home and decrease the odds that they will return to prison. Vera estimates that at least 760,000 people in prison are eligible to receive Pell Grants to fund their college education. With more than 600,000 people leaving state or federal prison every year, having a college education can significantly benefit not only incarcerated students, but also their families and communities.

The rollout of Pell Grant access

Pell reinstatement last July marked a significant step forward, but PEPs have been slower to materialize than some prospective students may have expected. This is in part because ED’s regulations require that postsecondary institutions follow certain steps to create a PEP that is eligible for Pell Grant funds. The regulations are designed to ensure that colleges offer high-quality programs that operate in the best interest of the students, which is especially important because students in prison often lack choice. In many cases, they only have one—or very few—degree programs available to them.

Now, eight months after Pell reinstatement, 44 state corrections departments, as well as the BOP, have established processes to select and approve new college partners. These “Pell Grant-ready” agencies oversee 1.17 million people—or 97 percent of people incarcerated in the United States. Vera is working with the remaining six states and Puerto Rico to ensure their processes are in place and that they are ready to receive applications from colleges by June 30 of this year.

Although Cal Poly Humboldt’s program is the only one to receive approval from ED so far (two other program applications are pending department review), an informal survey by Vera found that at least 43 state corrections agencies have approved, or will soon approve, at least one new program.

“What we know for sure is that students are ready to enroll,” said Ruth Delaney, director of Vera’s Unlocking Potential
initiative. “They’ve waited nearly 30 years for this opportunity. It’s time for colleges and corrections to step up and get these programs up and running. Balancing the need for more prison education programs with the need for quality protections takes time, but we want to see the pace of change accelerate in the years ahead, as corrections and accreditors become more familiar with these new processes and colleges have more examples of high-quality programs to look to as models.”

Bringing colleges and corrections together

Malisa Kringle, assistant deputy director of programs at the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, said that, with Pell reinstatement, the state is looking to develop a “strategic, collaborative, and less siloed approach” to postsecondary education in prison. Nebraska is one of at least 25 states that have established a consortium to bring colleges and correction officials together to gather input and streamline processes.

“I wanted to get everyone at the table in the same room, collaborating and working together with the same goal in mind, to really create a robust postsecondary system within our state prisons,” said Kringle.

Ben Jones, education director at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (WIDOC), said the department has actively reached out to colleges in the state and engages with those that express interest. It held a webinar last year for potential college partners.

“You can’t create a good structure with only one side,” said Jones.

WIDOC wants to be intentional about how it expands beyond its current offerings. There are several online programs available to incarcerated students, but fewer in-person options. Currently, the state offers only one in-person bachelor’s degree program, which is available at only one facility.

“We need to really think about what we do face-to-face, or other hybrid mechanisms, because I do think there’s capacity to expand into bachelor’s degree programs,” said Jones.

The landscape of higher education in prison and incarcerated students’ needs varies greatly nationwide. College-in-prison programs face unique challenges that community-based colleges do not, from helping students fill out FAFSA forms, to navigating technology limitations, to constraints in offering in-person classes at prisons in remote locations. But Pell reinstatement also offers tremendous opportunity for people in prison and their families, as well as for our communities.

“We want to see the promise of this legislation become real,” said Delaney. “We want everybody who’s interested in college to be able to go to college.”

To make that happen, colleges need to launch programs
that make high-quality postsecondary education accessible to all people in prison. The hundreds of thousands of people in prison
who are newly eligible to receive Pell Grants can only take advantage of this opportunity if there are ED-approved programs available to them. And corrections departments should actively engage colleges to develop college-in-prison programs.

Ladwig is thinking about what’s next for Cal Poly Humboldt. He said that within the next five years, the college would like to be able to offer three different bachelor’s degree options to incarcerated students.

“Having three choices is better than one,” Ladwig said. “We want students to get out of prison with the degree that they want, instead of the only thing that was available.”

To achieve this expansion, colleges and corrections departments need to work in close collaboration.

“Our vision is to really have as many opportunities available to the people in our care as possible,” said Jones at WIDOC. “Both [corrections departments and colleges] have to be talking early and often about what that actually looks like.”

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