What's Next for Pell Grants for Incarcerated Students

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Incarcerated students from Mount Tamalpais College at San Quentin State PrisonIncarcerated students from Mount Tamalpais College at San Quentin State PrisonIn December 2020, a nearly three-decade-long ban on people in prison getting Pell Grants, or federal aid for low-income college students, ended after years of bipartisan advocacy and research on the benefits of education behind bars. But with this ban lifted, questions linger among some advocates around how new federal dollars will be used to ensure people in prison get quality college programs.

“We’re constantly concerned about incarcerated students as a vulnerable population—and we instead need to approach them in higher education in similar ways as we do first-generation students and students from economically disenfranchised communities,” said Dr. Mary Gould, the director of the Alliance for Higher Education in Prisons, a nonprofit advocacy and research organization for college programs in prisons.

She stressed that people in prison are often given substandard resources “because it’s seen as okay to give them something rather than nothing.”

When it comes to college programs that can get federal dollars from Pell Grants, Gould worries that predatory practices in prisons could flourish if reporting mandates on program quality as well as equity are not careful.

Last fall, the Department of Education (ED) launched a subcommittee on prison education programs during its negotiated rulemaking sessions. These sessions bring together higher education stakeholders with an ED negotiator to tackle big issues like the college affordability crisis and how for-profit colleges will be regulated. The subcommittee on prison education has meanwhile been debating next steps in the Pell Grant expansion to incarcerated people.

While guidelines are a start, some advocates voiced concern about how such rules will be enforced inside prisons. This includes whether the accreditation process for college programs will take a close enough look at the kind of instruction that incarcerated people will get. Many people in prisons may additionally need college preparatory coursework before they can work towards a degree. If that preparation is not factored into programs, then a lot of people will likely be either unable to participate or the program expectations will be lowered.

“If you really want to create federal funding for this, I think you should probably create block grants and tie them to a clear, detailed set of standards, as well as a concrete system for ensuring compliance,” said Dr. Jody Lewen, founder and president of Mount Tamalpais College, which provides a free associate’s of arts degree program and college preparatory program to people incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in California.

Lewen and Gould added that this Pell Grant expansion arrives at a time when higher education has been financially suffering, largely due to declining enrollments in the pandemic. With colleges facing a potential financial incentive to educate incarcerated students, problems could surface if the ED's guidelines are not enforceable enough.

Lewen, for instance, suggested that schools be required to submit a proposal with a budget in order to receive Pell Grants for prison education programs.

“I love the potential,” she said. “And I hope I’m wrong, but I’m very concerned that without any mechanism for compelling schools to provide quality programs this will basically be like blood in the water with the incarcerated student essentially becoming prey.”

Yet there may be some lessons from California on how to get the Pell expansion right. Incarcerated students there have been able to get state grants for the last few years through the California College Promise Grant.

“Our colleges have not needed Pell because the students are eligible for financial aid like any other student thanks to the Promise Grant,” said Rebecca Sullivan Silbert, senior director of the Rising Scholars Network, which is made up of California community college programs that support incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students. 

The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office leads the Rising Scholars Network in partnership with the Foundation for California Community Colleges. In the Network, about 20 community colleges currently serve roughly 14,000 students in 35 prisons. Silbert said that they want to reach more students, yet they are limited not by demand but classroom space that the Department of Corrections offers.

“For our incarcerated students, we’re guided by the Chancellor’s vision for success just like any other student,” said Silbert. “That means we’re focused on making sure that the students reach their degrees, that they do so in a reasonable time, that they are able to transfer if they want to, and that they have clear advising and academic support to complete those degrees.”

Silbert added that Pell Grants could similarly be used to support not only incarcerated but formerly incarcerated college students along their continuum of education.

“When we look at the Pell extension nationally, I think those same things—like degree completion and transferability of credits—are important for all students,” said Silbert. “For the California community colleges, it's important to view incarcerated students as part of a whole student body in a whole system. That way if they are transferred from prison to prison, for example, they can transfer from community college to community college.”

Silbert also noted that the Pell extension should keep in mind the unique needs of people in prison. For example, students need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to get Pell Grants. But students in prison often do not have wifi and cell access, so completing that paperwork by hand and trying to gather the necessary financial information can be a big challenge. College programs will likely need to have advisors who can help incarcerated students navigate the FAFSA.

As for what comes next for the Pell expansion, Gould would like to see a panel come together to guide the ED accreditation process for prison education programs. An identified prison expert should be part of that accrediting body, she added.

“And the program reporting responsibilities need to be shifted to the colleges and universities,” said Gould, who noted that the Department of Corrections rather than a higher education institution as of now would mostly handle the reporting. “That to me seems critical.”

Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at rkelliher@diverseeducation.com.