Increasing college access for currently, formerly incarcerated students

With the restoration of Pell Grant eligibility for currently and formerly incarcerated students on the horizon, higher education experts are considering what else is needed to improve college access and success for justice-impacted individuals. A report from the Prison Policy Initiative estimates that less than 5 percent of formerly incarcerated people ever graduate from college, even as U.S. employers’ educational demands continue to rise.

Related: Georgetown Pivot Program preparing formerly incarcerated individuals for employment >

A new report by the Education Trust, a nonprofit working to close opportunity gaps disproportionately affecting low-income students and students of color, recommends several policy reforms that could help move the dial.

Spearheaded by the inaugural cohort of the Justice Fellows Policy Program, a group of formerly incarcerated people who advise the Education Trust on prison education policies, the report looks at eight states with the largest incarcerated population: California, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas.

William Freeman III, one of the report’s authors and a Justice Fellow at Ed Trust, tells Diverse Issues in Higher Education that he hopes the analysis and recommendations will help expand educational access. “We have so many stories of people who have had access to college in prison and go on to rework themselves to be stories of inspiration. But that path should be available to anyone who wants it. There shouldn’t only be a handful of people with those stories.”

Related: Common App drops disciplinary history question, pointing to racial disparities >

Specifically, the report recommends eight policy reforms, including:

  • Rescinding policies that prevent formerly and currently incarcerated students from receiving state financial aid and covering the cost of application and transcript fees as needed.
  • Funding institutions that provide higher education for incarcerated students and re-entry programs, and establishing partnerships between education, workforce, and criminal justice agencies and stakeholders.
  • Making formerly incarcerated individuals eligible for state and federal programs that provide support for basic needs such as food, housing, and health care. 
  • “Banning the box,” or prohibiting public and private colleges and universities from asking about an individual’s criminal history on initial admissions applications, and providing colleges and universities with guidance on making transparent, specific, and narrow inquiries that allow students to explain their criminal histories.

Related: A state-by-state look at postsecondary education for incarcerated people >

Creating a welcoming campus environment

Inside Higher Ed, meanwhile, recently looked at institutional hurdles that may deter formerly incarcerated students from progressing through higher education, including mistrust of students with criminal records, the revocation of fellowship offers after background checks, and certain admissions screening practices. To reduce these barriers for returning citizens, Christopher Beasley, a psychology professor at the University of Washington who was formerly incarcerated and now advises formerly incarcerated college students, calls on U.S. colleges and universities to extend their diversity initiatives to students with criminal histories.

Beasley explains, “incarceration is often the intersection of multiple marginalities converging on one another.” Currently and formerly incarcerated populations are disproportionately African American and Hispanic men, especially men who dropped out of high school and come from low-income households, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty finds.

Resources that help formerly incarcerated students navigate higher education are especially critical, Beasley says. “Some people may have been locked up or institutionalized for a long time. We’re often first generation and don’t understand the process or may feel discouraged with processes.”

Learn about Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative
Through the Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI), Georgetown University works to increase educational opportunities for currently and formerly incarcerated students. PJI’s Prison Scholars Program offers credit-bearing college-level courses taught by Georgetown faculty at the D.C. Jail and a bachelor’s degree program at the Patuxent Institution in Maryland. In addition, the university’s Pivot Program offers returning citizens an opportunity to earn a certificate in business and entrepreneurship and complete an internship with D.C.-area organizations.

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