Pell Grant Expansion Extends Educational Opportunities to Thousands of Incarcerated Students

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24 March 2024 Each year, dozens of inmates at Mule Creek State Prison in California earn degrees through the facility’s partnerships with education institutions. (Photo courtesy of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

(PEPs) have long been proven to be an incredible benefit to the individuals enrolled and to society at large. These efforts provide opportunities for self-growth, reflection, and personal development that are often inaccessible to a population that is largely composed of marginalized people.

“People who participate in postsecondary education in prison describe the experience as transformative, pushing them to develop new identities, perspectives, and goals, to focus on self-reflection and improvement,” writes Niloufer Taber, an associate director for research at the Vera Institute of Justice — a national nonprofit that researches the criminal justice system and advocates against injustice within the system. “These courses also provide incarcerated students and formerly incarcerated alumni with knowledge, skills, and connections they can use to benefit their children and families, multiplying the impact of a single college degree.”

Data supports the positive impact of PEPs, revealing a 43% lower likelihood of recidivism and a 13% higher employment rate for participants, according to the Vera Institute and the RAND Corporation — a nonprofit policy think tank that conducts research on numerous public sectors, including education. Beyond individual benefits, however, high-quality PEPs contribute to safer correctional facilities, increased public safety, and taxpayer savings, writes Taber.

Thanks to statutory changes through the FAFSA Simplification Act and approval from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), those enrolled in approved PEPs are eligible for Federal Pell Grants, significantly expanding access to the funding. This policy took effect in July 2023, but it is now beginning to bear fruit with the creation of dozens of new corrections education programs led by colleges and universities. These efforts build on the success of the ED’s Second Chance Pell (SCP) Experiment, which launched in 2015 and involved nearly 200 higher educational institutions that facilitated PEPs for incarcerated students.

From 2016 to 2022, more than 40,000 incarcerated students enrolled in higher education programs approved through SCP, according to the Vera Institute. Now, with the expansion of eligible grantees to nearly 770,000, the number has the potential to grow exponentially.

Greater Pell Grant eligibility marks a significant step in addressing racial and economic disparities by providing more opportunities to populations who are disproportionately impacted by incarceration. However, despite SCP’s success, racial and gender inequities persist in enrollment.

White men were overrepresented by 7%, while Hispanic or Latino and Black men were underrepresented by 16% and 8%, respectively. Among correctional facilities for women, White women made up 65% of SCP enrollees, despite accounting for only 47% of the prison population. Though Black women had more representation than Black men, with an overrepresentation of 1%, Hispanic and Latina women were underrepresented similarly to their male counterparts, at 13%.

Despite the existing inequities, prison education experts agree that the Pell expansion policy has the opportunity to build better futures for thousands of people through various existing and developing degree, certification, and credential programs.

“Access to higher education in prison illuminates some of the darkest corners of our society, revealing an untapped reservoir of intellectual potential,” says Ved Price, executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison. “It transcends the steel bars and concrete walls, proving that the pursuit of knowledge is an invincible spirit representing freedom that no physical confinement can curtail. The investment in prison education is also an act of resistance that refuses the notion that any individual is beyond the emancipatory power of knowledge.”

Fortunately, the influx of funding from the Pell expansion has triggered a wave of new efforts and initiatives with the goal of promoting PEP growth and improving diversity, equity, and inclusion within new and existing programs. Experts believe that further development of PEPs will inevitably reduce racial disparities within the corrections system and in society at large.

“Postsecondary education can facilitate upward social mobility to racially marginalized groups,” writes Taber. “People of color are a disproportionate majority of the prison population, making the availability of postsecondary programs in prison an important avenue to future opportunity.”

To this end, the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) created the Ascendium Fellowship Program in fall 2023 and recently announced its first cohort of eight geographically diverse fellows. The two-year initiative tasks the cohort — which consists of two higher education institutions and six nonprofit organizations or state-run programs — with reducing system barriers in higher education for students of color, low-income students, and first-generation students by expanding PEP offerings within individual prisons and overarching state corrections departments. Currently, only about 35% of state prisons offer some form of college programming, according to NCAN.

Each cohort member has established initiatives that support the growth of correctional education initiatives, with a particular focus on diverse populations. The educational institutions involved are California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA), and the Wichita State University Campus of Applied Sciences and Technology (WSU Tech), a community college in Kansas.

Incarcerated students at the California State Prison, Los Angeles County, participate in the California State University, Los Angeles
Lancaster Prison Program. (Photo courtesy of Cal State LA)

Cal State LA had been a part of the SCP Experiment since its inception, through the creation of a bachelor’s degree program for incarcerated students and Project Rebound, which provides academic, financial, personal, and professional support to formerly incarcerated people who are working to earn a four-year degree.

WSU Tech focuses its efforts primarily on employment opportunities by providing jobs to individuals on work release and probation or parole, engaging with employers on their behalf, and offering a pathway to earn a GED while working toward a technical certification.

The fellows will collaborate monthly, contributing to a comprehensive guidebook to aid college access and success programs in supporting this growing population. The ultimate goal is to establish a national network of these programs with specialized knowledge and expertise to guide incarcerated individuals in attaining postsecondary degrees and valuable credentials.●