End of Pell Grant Ban Clears the Way for New Wave of Prison Education Programs

One graduate says California spent $1.5 million to lock him up for 21 years: 'I earned a bachelor’s degree for under $30,000 & now I’m paying taxes.'

This is a photo of prison college program graduates.
Back row (left to right): Pitzer College trustee Ruett Foster, Professor Barbara Junisbai, President Strom Thacker, California Rehabilitation Center coordinator of Pitzer College program Alanna Noyes, Inside-Out Director Nigel Boyle, Professor Jeffrey Lewis, formerly “inside” Pitzer graduate Yusef Pierce ’21. Front row (left to right): graduates Steven Jennings, Pedro Rivera and Devin Rose. (Kolapo Soretire/Pitzer College)

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Thirty years ago, there were 770 postsecondary education programs spread throughout 1,200 prisons in the United States. But when the 1994 crime bill passed, cutting off Pell Grants to incarcerated students, the effect was as dramatic as it was swift. Almost instantly, the number of programs shrank to eight. 

In July, a federal rule change ended this ban, instantly making 767,000 incarcerated people eligible to use Pell’s $7,395 annual stipend to pay for higher education. For advocates who have long sought this reversal, including college officials and justice reform proponents, there’s a realization that now, the hard work will begin.

“It’s so easy to turn things off,” said Ruby Qazilbash, deputy director of the Policy Office for the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance. “It’s difficult to turn them back on,” she added, referring to the arduous process needed to create new prison education programs. 

Ben Jones, education director for Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections, issued a warning to college and prison officials: “It’s not only a lot of work, but it’s expensive work.”

The move back toward allowing incarcerated students to access federal student financial aid began in 2015, when President Barack Obama initiated the Second Chance Pell program. This allowed 67 colleges to begin prison education programs and made Pell funds available to those schools’ imprisoned students. By 2021-22, those 6,000 participants had more than doubled, to 13,186, according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice. In all, nearly 41,000 incarcerated students participated in Second Chance Pell, earning about 12,000 credentials.

Then, 2½ years ago, as part of the FAFSA Simplification Act, Congress passed legislation that ended the ban, effective this past July. Celebrating the Pell ban rollback at a conference in Washington, D.C., this summer, James Kvaal, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education, said that this “expanding opportunity has transcended politics.”

Now, colleges and prisons in nearly every state are attempting to create new initiatives. There’s no official count of how many schools are starting to offer classes behind bars, but enthusiasm is high, said Ruth Delaney, Vera’s associate initiative director. 

But crafting a college program inside prison isn’t easy.

There are three main steps: colleges and prisons must design a course of study, have the plan approved by the school’s accreditors and, if students will attempt to use Pell funds, apply for authorization from the U.S. Department of Education.

Jones is part of his state’s committee that reviews prospective programs. That group sets concrete guidelines for everything from how students will access technology to how frequently professors will hold office hours. “We’ve scared some schools away” because of the number of questions asked, he admitted.

Laura Ferguson Mimms, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education in Prison Initiative, agreed with Jones. “Operational things can create so many barriers” in prison programs, she said. “We want to know everything” about the plans. 

When building a relationship between a prison and a college, both sides need to “go slow in order to go fast,” she said. 

The idea of each state setting up a task force to oversee prison education programs is gaining momentum, Delaney said, especially because all federally approved programs need to be reviewed after two years. Having a formal structure in place before a program starts can lessen review surprises, she said. Up to 15 states, including Tennessee, Kansas, Mississippi, Georgia and Michigan, have task forces, Delaney said. These groups typically include college accreditors, state higher education officials, incarcerated people and corrections officials. 

The structure of prison education programs can vary widely, from full-time in-person classes to hybrid to fully online. While most schools prefer in-person instruction, a hybrid option can allow incarcerated students to mix with those who are on campus, Delaney said, sometimes increasing the types of courses that can be offered to those imprisoned. At California’s Pitzer College, students participating in the Inside-Out program travel to the California Rehabilitation Center to take in-person classes with incarcerated students. Three imprisoned students from the center graduated with bachelor’s degrees this summer. 

While the rollback marks a major change for higher education prison programs, Delaney said, many may avoid using Pell Grants if they can find funding elsewhere. “Pell is fantastic, but it’s very hard to file a FAFSA [form] in prison” because incarcerated students often cannot access the proper documentation, she said. Filing the federal financial aid form is required to receive a Pell Grant.

In states, such as Tennessee and California, that offer residents free community college tuition, it’s easier to use state funding than Pell Grants. That’s the case for College of the Redwoods, a community college in northern California that has been running classes at the supermax Pelican Bay State Prison for eight years.

But, using Pell funds is key for a new bachelor’s degree program being set up by California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, said Steve Ladwig, director of the school’s Transformative and Restorative Education Center. 

That program, which begins in January, will enroll students who have completed an associate degree with College of the Redwoods. Although Pell eligibility doesn’t factor into acceptance decisions, “with Pell, we can serve a lot more students,” Ladwig said. 

Being chosen for Second Chance Pell also changed the University of Wyoming’s program. The school had started by offering single classes to imprisoned students without putting anyone on a path to a degree. But because Pell funds can cover full-time students’ tuition, the university ramped up its Pathways from Prison program, said Robert Colter, co-executive director. “Pell is absolutely critical for creating a sustainable degree path.” 

Wyoming’s program started at the state’s only women’s prison so the university would not have to deal with students being transferred to other facilities, Colter said. But the school also just launched a program at a men’s prison for the fall semester, he added.

Like Wyoming, College of the Redwoods began with one group of students taking one class, said Rory Johnson, dean of the Pelican Bay Scholars Program. There are now as many as 500 students taking 40 courses. “We started small and just added as we got better at it,” he said.

Beyond financial considerations, reinstatement of Pell is meaningful for imprisoned students, said Humboldt’s Tony Wallin-Sato, a formerly incarcerated individual who has earned a college degree. “It tells people who are incarcerated, you do deserve this, you are human beings. It validates something.” Wallin-Sato is the program coordinator of the school’s Project Rebound, a program that helps formerly imprisoned students attend college. 

As colleges explore creating programs behind bars, Colter cautioned, they must pay attention to the demands that starting a prison program places on internal staff. Instructors might have to adjust classes for students who can’t access the internet or create a way to run a lab inside a correctional facility.

And because prisons are typically located far from college campuses, travel can be a major consideration. Wyoming Women’s Center is in rural Lusk, 2½ hours from the university. Because of the distance, classes are hybrid, with most instructors visiting the prison at least once, Colter said. The distance between Humboldt and Pelican Bay is 83 miles; while the university plans to make all its classes face to face, winter might impact traveling on rural roads, officials said. 

While it is typically not difficult to find instructors willing to be part of a prison program, Colter said having the backing of the entire school is vital. In Wyoming’s program, student support officials go to the prison to help with enrollment and to hunt down transcripts. “That can be really hard sometimes,” he added. 

Johnson agreed that it is important to get different department officials to buy into a program, even if most of them will never visit the prison. For example, Redwoods had eliminated all its paper forms, but because of limitations on technology in the prison, it had to re-create a system to enroll imprisoned students using paper, he said. The school also created a policy to accept unofficial transcripts because so many long-term incarcerated people at Pelican Bay had trouble procuring accurate documents. 

It’s not clear how many students it might take for a college program to break even financially, said Delaney, adding that Vera plans to conduct a cost analysis of prison programs soon. But Mark Taylor, a formerly incarcerated prisoner who earned a degree at Humboldt, came up with his own calculus. He estimated that California spent $1.5 million to keep him locked up for 21 years. “I earned a bachelor’s degree for under $30,000, and now I’m paying taxes, a significant amount.” Taylor is a youth outreach coordinator at Project Rebound.

“At some point, you’re asking the wrong question if you’re asking if we can afford” prison education programs, said Maxwell Schnurer, a Humboldt communications professor and the leader of its upcoming prison program. “It’s more like, can we afford to have a bunch of uneducated folks in our community? I would say no.”

“It’s not just about having them pass classes,” said Colter. “We have a saying at our school: Prepare for complete living. That’s what I have in mind.”

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