Starting July 1, incarcerated students will have access to Pell Grants, but whether there will be approved programs ready for those students beyond the 200 already operating as part of a federal pilot program is uncertain.
Before new programs can start, a college or university will need staff on board and to train those employees, along with funding beyond the Pell Grants, which typically don’t cover the total cost. Then, an institution will have to get approval from its accreditor, a corrections agency, and the U.S. Department of Education. The Education Department reached a key milestone late last month when it released final regulations that set standards postsecondary prison education programs will have to meet in order to access Pell Grant funds.
The department, higher education institutions and other agencies involved will now have to determine how to implement the regulations and the process to approve programs. Those entities are awaiting guidance, including an application template and how-tos from the department.
Bradley Custer, a senior policy analyst in higher education for the Center for American Progress, said the spotlight will now shift to the individual states and institutions.
“Realistically, there is a lot of infrastructure that’s still needed as far as getting these parties working together in a more organized fashion and also at the state level, and that’s probably going to take some time,” Custer said.
The final regulations, which go into effect July 1, outline the process for the approval of prison education programs and guidelines for the programs, among other provisions. The final rules were similar to the draft regulations released over the summer, though the department declined to make many of the changes requested by advocates, Custer said.
Congress repealed a 1994 prohibition on Pell Grants for incarcerated students in 2020 as part of the FAFSA Simplification Act. More than half a million people are expected to benefit from the reinstatement of Pell next year, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, which advocates for a range of reforms to the criminal justice system.
The Vera Institute has provided technical assistance to institutions offering postsecondary programs behind bars and created guides to assist institutions with starting new programs, including one geared toward accreditors.
The Pell reinstatement coincides with the Education Department’s “Fresh Start” initiative, which will restore federal student aid eligibility to those who are incarcerated and have defaulted on their federal student loans. Currently, those who are in default can’t participate in Second Chance Pell, the federal pilot program that started in 2015 and allows participating colleges and universities to access Pell Grants for incarcerated students.
Second Chance Pell sites will still have to follow the application process outlined in the regulations. Department officials have said they are still considering options for those participating in Second Chance Pell to transition to the new requirements.
“As far as anyone has been told, Second Chance Pell is just going to continue,” Custer said. “Eventually there will be a transition process, but we don’t know how long Second Chance Pell will be allowed to just keep doing what they’re doing.”
Education Department officials said the final regulations “establish important guardrails for incarcerated students and taxpayers to protect students from enrolling in programs that would not permit them to benefit.”
For-profit institutions will not be allowed to operate Pell-eligible prison programs, and colleges and universities will not be able to enroll students in a program that leads to licensure or certification if someone couldn’t get a job in that field because of their conviction.
Under the new rules, any postsecondary institution that wants to offer a program in prison has to get approval from the agency operating the prison—either the state department of corrections or the federal Bureau of Prisons—as well as the institution’s accrediting agency, which is required to conduct a site visit “to ensure that the prison education program meets the same standards as substantially similar programs that are not prison education programs offered by the institution,” according to a department fact sheet. Once the institution clears that initial approval, it can begin enrolling Pell-eligible students.
“I think the new regulations also really focus on the quality of the college and prison programs, which is so important for all students, but particularly for incarcerated students who are going to have limited options about which colleges they can enroll in,” said Margaret diZerega, director of the Vera Institute’s Unlocking Potential Initiative, which works to expand access to high-quality postsecondary education for those who are incarcerated.
After an initial two-year trial period, during which their prisoners can receive Pell Grants, the corrections agency overseeing a facility will make a determination about whether the program is operating in students’ best interest. Without that determination, a college or university would not be eligible to award a Pell Grant to an incarcerated individual at a correctional facility.
“This is where corrections agencies are supposed to evaluate data that came from the program to determine if the program should be continued to be approved, or if the program should not continue,” Custer said. “We have a little bit of time to figure out how that’s going to work.”
Oversight entities will consider program inputs such as experience and credentials of instructors, availability of academic and career advising services, and transferability of credits as part of the evaluation. The department initially proposed making several metrics focused on outcomes such as a student’s earnings postrelease required for the evaluation, but those will be optional.
The role of the corrections agencies has concerned some of those running programs behind bars and other advocates. They’re worried that the corrections agencies are not equipped to make the determination and could take a greater role in running the college programs.
“The way that a college can go inside a prison but not be part of the prison is a big part of the work,” said Jessica Neptune, director of national engagement for the Bard Prison Initiative. “How we can maintain that objective with corrections’ new role evaluating student best interests really remains to be seen.”
The Bard Prison Initiative, which is a part of Bard College and has been operating in prisons since 2001, detailed its concerns about the role of corrections, the metrics used for the best-interest determination and the two-year time frame for approval in its public comment on the draft regulations.
“It takes five years typically to get a [bachelor’s degree] and three years to get an [associate’s],” said Neptune, adding that BPI needed at least 10 years to collect enough data to say anything meaningful. “If we started a new location, I’m not sure what we would be able to look at two years in.”
Other than changing some of the metrics used for the determination, the department held firm to the other provisions.
“Two years is sufficiently long enough to assess outcomes for shorter programs and will ensure accountability for poorly performing programs,” the final regulations say.
On the role of corrections agencies, department staff wrote that Congress required the entity overseeing the correctional facility to approve the prison education programs.
The Bard Prison Initiative and others dispute that interpretation.
Neptune said a clean repeal of the Pell prohibition would have been better than the final regulations, which start to create a separate system of higher education for incarcerated students.
“A lot of us voiced concerns in our advocacy for Pell that there be attention to profiteers, exploitation and issues around quality,” she said. “But now I fear that well-intended interventions go too far in holding college programs in suspicion when what the last few years of Second Chance Pell really show is a field dominated by educators working to create high-quality educational opportunities who are stymied most often by a lack of resources or unsupportive correctional partners.”
For Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville, becoming a Second Chance Pell institution in 2019 allowed the college to double the enrollment of its prison program, which started in 2006.
John Donnelly, vice president for instruction and student services for PVCC, said the reinstatement of Pell next year shouldn’t affect PVCC too much, though he and others who run Second Chance Pell sites are waiting to see what the process will look like to transition to a prison education program, as defined in the new rules.
The college serves 75 students across three correctional facilities in the central Virginia region. As college-in-prison programs expand with the reinstatement, Donnelly said it’s important for them to provide a similar experience for students who are on the inside.
“You’ve got to hold students to the same standards—the same rigor—as you do on campus,” he said. “We have to provide the same services, the same opportunities to collaborate, the same opportunities for studying and out-of-classroom activities as we do on campus. If we don’t, we’re doing a disservice to that population.”
As more programs start to take shape, Donnelly is advocating for a two-plus-two model in which community colleges partner with four-year institutions to offer degree programs rather than competing with one another. He also thinks the state should rely on established programs and use technology to expand them to other facilities while the in-person offerings get up and running.
“All incarcerated individuals across the commonwealth are eligible for Pell, which means we got to have suppliers of those programs,” he said.
He’s also not sure the state department of corrections has the necessary capacity to oversee the approval process of the prison education programs.
“The new regs took away the metrics and all that we had to prove, which is helpful, but it’s still relying on the DOC to make these decisions,” he said. “We have to hope they make really good decisions.”
The Virginia Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
‘Here to Help’
Pell Grants account for about half the funding for the Moreau College Initiative at Holy Cross College in Indiana, said Alesha Seroczynski, the initiative’s director. Holy Cross partnered with the University of Notre Dame and the Indiana Department of Correction in 2013 to offer classes at the Westville Correctional Facility in northern Indiana. The initiative has grown to include two- and four-year degree programs, a dedicated dorm with 94 beds, and a collection of clubs and student organizations at Westville.
“If you can imagine it happening on the main campus, we’re trying to recreate it on the inside,” Seroczynski said.
About 90 percent of the Moreau College students graduate, she added.
Seroczynski said becoming a Second Chance Pell site in 2016 allowed the program to create a second full-time position to support more student services such as a writing center.
She’s hoping the college won’t see a big shift with the reinstatement of Pell.
“I’m not afraid or concerned,” she said. “I see it as a moment and an opportunity where we can come together to support men and women and give them the best chance for excellent education on the inside, which of course prepares them for life on the outside.”
To prepare, Seroczynski is working with other higher education institutions in the state as part of the Indiana Prison Liberal Arts Network so they can collaborate and support one another. By working together, she hopes the different institutions can help more people who are incarcerated access college coursework, which includes precollege classes or helping the students complete their high school equivalency certificate, so they are eligible for college.
As other institutions explore starting programs behind bars, Seroczynski said she hopes they’ll take advantage of those who already have been working in this area.
“Talk to us. Use us,” she said. “We’re here to help schools learn how to do this so that the men and women receive the best possible education.”