As we recently wrote, students who are incarcerated are once again eligible for Pell Grants. Accordingly, higher education institutions seeking to expand their prison education programs (PEPs) must ensure their programs meet the unique challenges of pursuing college behind bars.
Increased access to Pell Grants and new programming will generate stronger enthusiasm for higher education in prison, according to Edin Madrid, a current University of California, Los Angeles student who earned an associate’s degree while incarcerated. “People are really going to want to pursue education now because it’s going to be accessible to them,” he said in a recent interview with TICAS.
Even as the Pell Grant – a critical financial aid program for low- and middle-income people – expands access to higher education to more individuals, student experiences and program quality vary widely across PEPs, and even students within the same correctional facility may face different levels of access to postsecondary programs.
This second installment in TICAS’ two-part blog series on Pell Grant access for incarcerated students explores the challenges of pursuing college in prison and offers recommendations for stakeholders involved in prison education program implementation.
Access and Barriers to Pell for Incarcerated Students
The Second Chance Pell (SCP) Experimental Sites Initiative brought Pell access and postsecondary programs to a limited number of correctional facilities from 2015 to 2023, but racial disparities in SCP enrollment underscored the importance of foregrounding equity as PEPs continue to expand. Researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice, for example, found that compared to the general U.S. prison population, white students were overrepresented as SCP recipients by approximately 7 percentage points, and Black students were underrepresented by 8 percentage points. Latino students were underrepresented by more than 15 percentage points, comprising 24 percent of the prison population but just 8 percent of SCP students.
To receive the Pell Grant, all students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), but incarcerated students face high barriers to FAFSA completion. Limited access to technology and the internet may impede students’ ability to communicate with ED and obtain personal documents such as tax records necessary to determine aid eligibility.
Even after successfully navigating the aid application process and receiving Pell, incarcerated students may face additional barriers, such as limited access to student support services, compared to their on-campus peers. Each PEP will look different, depending on numerous factors including location, the type and infrastructure of correctional facility, institution type, credentials offered, course delivery modality, and access to materials and technology needed for school. For example, researchers from the University of Utah’s Prison Education Project found that Second Chance Pell participants often had limited access to technology, relied on outdated technology, and lacked resources to assist with technology or the freedom to use it independently.
Edin Madrid faced similar resource limitations while taking college classes in California prisons. He recalled sharing hand-me-down books donated by community colleges with his classmates and stretching limited materials across all his courses. “We each got supplies once a semester,” he said, “but all we got was one pen, one highlighter, and a notepad. And that was supposed to hold us off for a full semester with three classes.” On top of these physical resource challenges, staffing constraints also impacted Madrid’s academic progress; he and his classmates once had to delay taking a final exam because their institution lacked the necessary funding to pay supervisory staff to administer the test.
In addition, restrictions controlled by departments of corrections (DOCs), including internet access, prerequisite education requirements, and disciplinary records, can exclude students from accessing PEPs. Racial bias exacerbates the effects of these barriers. For example, corrections officers are more likely to charge Black individuals with prison rule violations than their white peers, making them more likely to have recent disciplinary charges that may exclude them from postsecondary programming.
Promoting Equity and Quality Beyond Pell
Pell Grants may open the door to postsecondary programs for many incarcerated individuals, but those funds will not guarantee the quality of learning environments, which may be hampered by lack of institutional investment or expertise and restrictions enacted by departments of corrections. Pell-eligible public and private, nonprofit institutions, DOCs, and advocates must consider, learn from, and amplify the experiences of currently or formerly incarcerated students to create high-quality programming and robust student support services within the PEP context.
Guided by the lived experiences of students, key stakeholders should consider the following recommendations:
- Institutions should commit to providing the resources and services needed, whether in-house or through community partnerships, to ensure students receive adequate support in reaching their academic goals.Advocates should include consideration of students enrolled in PEPs when promoting college affordability and accountability, particularly when assessing forthcoming changes to regulations on accreditation, distance education, and other institutional quality issues.
- DOCs should proactively identify and minimize barriers to student success (such as limited access to technology and disciplinary restrictions on enrollment) and center the voices of currently and formerly incarcerated students when evaluating new programs.
- Policymakers should streamline students’ ability to access Pell Grants through initiatives such as Fresh Start, which eliminates the negative effects of default and restores federal student aid eligibility for borrowers currently in default on their federal student loans.
- With an eye toward students’ long-term success, policymakers should also reduce barriers to employment and restrictions limiting formerly incarcerated individuals from earning professional licensure upon release.
The U.S. Department of Education, institutions, state departments of corrections, the federal Bureau of Prisons, accreditors, and advocates must all collaborate and share best practices to ensure all students have access to high-quality, equitable postsecondary programs and holistic support services whether they attend college on campus or inside a correctional facility.
Pell restoration is both a welcome win for students who are incarcerated and institutions seeking to expand their prison education offerings and a step toward achieving greater equity in higher education.
As Madrid explained, education empowers individuals to find their voices and develop self-agency. “Anybody deserves the right to be educated,” he said. “From personal experience, I know it creates change inside. If one person sees another person doing college, most likely that person is going to do college too. It would be a dream to see all these prisons turned into college dorms.”
Eric Uriegas is a doctoral student in Higher Education Administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Eric was a summer 2023 graduate fellow with TICAS’ accountability team. Lydia Franz is an accountability policy associate at TICAS.