Prison college programs: With Pell ban lifting, advocates push to ensure quality, equity

The omnibus spending and stimulus package signed at the end of 2020 restored access to Pell Grants for incarcerated students and those convicted of drug-related offenses, putting an end to a 26-year-long ban. 

Related: Pandemic relief bill simplifies FAFSA, broadens access to financial aid >

The timeline for restoring Pell access remains unclear but the ban will lift no later than July 1, 2023. Recognizing that the change could render nearly 500,000 incarcerated people eligible for Pell Grants, higher education advocates are not only celebrating the major win but also examining the quality, equity implications of renewed educational opportunities for this disenfranchised population, Inside Higher Ed reports

Anticipating strong demand from students, corrections, and colleges  

Following the passage of the 1994 crime bill that barred people with criminal offenses from receiving federal aid, the number of higher education programs in U.S. prisons plummeted from over 300 to less than 15. 

In recent years, a federal pilot initiative called the Second Chance Pell program has expanded those offerings, supplemented by private philanthropy and some state funding. Authorized by the Obama administration in 2015, Second Chance Pell gives incarcerated students access to Pell Grants through partnerships between correctional facilities and approximately 130 colleges, including Georgetown University.

Related: Pell Grant to Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative will expand programs >

The programs’ outcomes data has supported advocates’ calls to provide greater postsecondary education options for incarcerated individuals. A RAND Corporation study from 2013 estimated that higher education in prison decreased recidivism rates by 43 percent for those enrolled compared to those who were not. 

With more avenues for incarcerated students to access Pell grants on the horizon, leaders in higher education advocacy anticipate burgeoning demand, and programming. 

“We know there’s high demand from incarcerated people for these opportunities, and there’s a ton of interest from corrections and college,” Margaret diZerega, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center for Sentencing and Corrections, says. 

Ensuring that federal dollars are going toward quality programs will be crucial. Erin Corbett, founder and CEO of the Second Chance Educational Alliance, adds that the higher education landscape now has a greater number of low-quality programs than it did before the Pell ban existed. “There are more institutions that can be looking at incarcerated students simply as an additional revenue stream and not really caring about providing educational opportunity,” she says. 

Protecting against exploitative behaviors

To prevent predatory practices within prisons’ postsecondary education programs, the new legislation lifting the Pell ban outlined several standards. To receive federal aid dollars for prison-based programs, institutions must have no suspensions or disciplinary marks from an accreditation agency for five years, and their credits must be able to transfer to at least one college or university in the state where students will reside upon their release. The legislation also urges state and corrections officials to track job placement, earnings, and recidivism metrics for returning citizens.

“We want to make sure that we have very rigorous curriculums,” Tracy Andrus, director of the Lee P. Brown Criminal Justice Institute and a professor of criminal justice at Wiley College, says. “The same program that we offer at our colleges and universities should be the identical program that we offer to our inmates in prison.” Andrus was incarcerated in the 1990s and made history as the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in juvenile justice. 

Prioritizing equity

Beyond traditional performance indicators, prison-based college programs also must address racial disparities, Corbett adds. 

According to a 2019 study, while Black and Hispanic inmates enroll in postsecondary education programs at rates similar to their white counterparts, their retention and completion rates lag. Corbett suggests that historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) should have a greater role in leading higher education in prison; their institutional backgrounds and higher representation of faculty of color, she notes, could help change the tide for students in prison. 

“The research already demonstrates that when students can see teachers and professors that look like them, their outcomes tend to be better,” Corbett says. 

Leaders warn that college prison programs should not be viewed narrowly as just a tactic for curbing recidivism, which might limit opportunity for those whose prospects for release are uncertain. A more holistic view, they say, recognizes that many incarcerated students never had access to quality education and come from experiences that have excluded and marginalized them from other opportunities. 

“In far too many situations, education is seen as part of the ‘rehabilitation process,’” Mary Gould, director of the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, shares. “It’s not education with the idea that everyone deserves access to quality education, but that education can do something ‘corrective,’ and that is incredibly problematic.” 

Gould calls on education stakeholders to resist that mindset and instead use this moment of change to double down on equitable, high-quality educational offerings that best serve a broad range of incarcerated students. 

Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative is a national leader in higher education for incarcerated people. Learn more about the initiative, which brings together esteemed scholars, practitioners, and students to explore mass incarceration from various perspectives. PJI also provides re-entry support and professional training for returning citizens, supports families of the incarcerated, and pursues exonerations after wrongful convictions.

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