Blog Post | August 17, 2022

TICAS Analysis of High-Quality Prison Education Programs: What to Know When Reviewing the Education Department’s Latest Notice of Proposed Rulemaking

Author: Abby Johnson, TICAS Intern

As part of its latest Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on July 28, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced proposed regulations for prison education programs; the 90/10 rule; and change of ownership at higher education institutions. To acknowledge this important shift in prison education policy, The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) reviewed research on best practices for creating high-quality prison education programs. This post summarizes key takeaways from that research.

A Unique Moment for Prison Education Programs. The FAFSA Simplification Act, a key part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, ensures that individuals who are incarcerated will be able to apply for Pell Grants no later than July 2023.[1] According to the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera), over 450,000 individuals who are incarcerated will be able to apply for Pell grants.

Pell restoration will dismantle some of the financial barriers to higher education that individuals who are incarcerated face. Reducing these financial obstacles will lead to an increase in demand for diverse types of prison education programs. When interest in prison education grows, higher education institutions will have an opportunity to expand existing programs and create new ones that meet the needs of individuals who are incarcerated.

Research on Creating Accessible Programs. Research indicates that education leaders should provide opportunities for students to connect their education in prison with previous and future coursework. For example, Dr. Erin Corbett of the Second Chance Educational Alliance recommends prison education programs recognize certifications and other coursework that individuals completed prior to starting a prison education program. Specifically, Corbett cites the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning’s findings on the impact of prior learning assessments (PLAs) on college graduation rates.

PLAs are assessments that measure students’ incoming knowledge and skills to provide them with credit for learning completed in other settings. In their multi-institute research, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning found that 43 percent of students who were able to gain credit through PLAs graduated with a bachelor’s degree. About 15 percent of non-PLA students graduated with a bachelor’s degree. This 28 percentage point gap indicates that when higher education institutions design their programs as part of a learning continuum, they serve students more effectively.

As part of this continuum, prison education programs must also ensure that students can transfer their credits to other campuses. A streamlined transfer process enables students to complete their degrees after leaving prison. For example, under California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, individuals who are incarcerated can earn an associate’s degree through the California Community Colleges system. Once they have their degree, they are eligible to transfer to four-year colleges in the state.

Education leaders should also work with departments of corrections to implement and honor education holds. These holds are policies that allow individuals who are incarcerated to stay at a particular prison to complete coursework before being transferred to another prison. For example, the Washington State Department of Corrections provides individuals who are incarcerated with the ability to have a hold placed on any potential transfers during their course of study. The amount of time allowed for the hold ranges from a maximum of two years for associate’s degrees to less than three months for short-term programs. Institutions can stipulate in their memoranda of understanding with corrections departments whether their program will use education holds.

Research on Holding Programs Accountable to High Standards. Higher education institutions should partner with community-based organizations to ensure that individuals who are incarcerated have input into the program design. In addition to having a community partner, a prison education program team should include a program leader; members of a college’s financial aid and academic affairs teams; and members of the prison leadership team. Having a diverse team enables program developers to effectively honor the needs of educators, corrections officers, and students.

In addition to convening a diverse team, leaders in the prison education space should also collect and analyze comprehensive data on students’ experiences. One example of an assessment tool is the Institute for Higher Education Policy’s (IHEP) Higher Education in Prison Key Performance Indicator Framework, which enables higher education institutions to evaluate their prison-based programs. When higher education leaders develop new prison education programs or adapt existing programs, they can consider leveraging IHEP’s framework or a similar tool to collect and analyze program data.

Key Takeaways for the Education Department’s latest NPRM. When reviewing ED’s latest NPRM, it will be important to remember:

  • The proposed regulations will inform a new chapter in prison education as the federal government reinstates Pell eligibility to students who are incarcerated
  • Policies that enable educational continuity in prison settings make college programs more accessible to individuals who are incarcerated
  • Policies that allow for robust data sharing and coordination between higher education leaders and departments of corrections are critical to holding prison education programs accountable to high standards

How to Engage with the NPRM Process. All interested individuals can submit comments on the July 28 NPRM via the federal government’s portal through August 26.

Abby Johnson interned with TICAS over the summer of 2022 through a partnership with the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, where she is a second-year Master’s of Public Policy student.

[1] Equipping Individuals for Life Beyond BarsA Monumental Shift: Restoring Access to Pell Grants for Incarcerated Students