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What to Know about Using Pell Grants to Take College Classes in Prison

by Richard Hahn

THE VALUE OF POST-SECONDARY EDUCAtion to people who complete courses in prison is well established. The Second Chance Pell (SCP) Pilot, which offered federal grants to help prisoners pay for college and professional certification classes beginning in 2015, was meant to leverage the benefits of higher education to improve post-release outcomes, particularly employment and recidivism rates.

Next year the Department of Education will allow people in prison to apply to access the full pool of Pell funding. But benefits only accrue to those who receive grants, enroll in quality classes, and complete courses of study. Recent research has exposed a raft of barriers to success that threaten the effectiveness of expanded Pell eligibility. It is important that people in prison understand these barriers and approach them judiciously.

Prisoners were excluded from Pell eligibility in the 1990s as a part of the federal government’s turn toward a “tough on crime” stance. By the 2010s, plummeting crime and stagnant incarceration rates convinced even conservative policymakers that the Pell exclusion was misguided. The SCP Pilot was meant to test the market for higher education in prisons. Sadly, of the more than 50,000 grants made available during the program’s lifetime, fewer than half were used.

Obstacles to Eligibility for Prisoners

LOW UPTAKE WAS NOT A PRODUCT OF LOW demand. Rather, it was the result of state and federal requirements that kept as many as 95 percent of prisoners ineligible. Some of these obstacles can be remedied by simple policy changes. For instance, the requirement that male applicants be registered for the draft will be lifted in 2024, a boon for the roughly 68 percent of prisoners who are not registered. Incarcerated Pell applicants are subject to enhanced document verification at twice the rate experienced by the general public; this too could be improved through straightforward policy changes.

Other barriers are unlikely to go away. More than a quarter of prisoners are housed in high security or special management facilities, which seldom offer post-secondary programming. Long-term prisoners, for whom the benefits of higher education after release are a distant prospect, are typically excluded from classes. Low college readiness, which reflects a lack of quality remedial instruction in prisons, is a barrier for 64 percent of prisoners, but time, investment, and cultural change will be necessary to improve it. What’s more, most prisoners face multiple exclusions and do not have the resources to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles they must overcome. Low eligibility will remain a problem for the foreseeable future.

Enrollment in post-secondary classes is also susceptible to logistical challenges and competing interests. Many prisoners simply do not have enough time during any one sentence term to enroll in and complete classes. Estimates suggest that as many as half of all people admitted to prison serve less than a year in institutions capable of delivering college classes due to credit given for time served in jails and classification facilities, which typically lack educational programming. These people often do not have time to complete the application process, much less a semester of classes.

Even mid- and low-security prisons that house people with sentences sufficiently short to qualify for enrollment and sufficiently long to complete classes are seldom prepared to deliver consistent educational programming. Physical space for classrooms and administrative infrastructure to support educators and students are limited. Access to the internet in prisons is restricted or non existent. Regular lockdowns and other disruptive events interfere with curricula and put incarcerated students at a disadvantage. Given these challenges, prisoners must weigh the abstract benefits of higher education against the tangible income and skills they could accumulate by working in corrections industries or traditional institutional roles. Short of paying students to take classes, this opportunity cost problem has no easy answer.

Low eligibility rates and poor infrastructure with which to deliver classes have the subsidiary effect of depressing the number of educational providers willing to enter corrections spaces. Few providers means little competition, and thus the providers that serve prisoners do not have to offer high quality programming to attract students. Low quality providers yield poor program retention. While vocational and high school equivalency programs regularly graduate more than 60 percent of their incarcerated students, many college programs graduate fewer than a quarter. Some providers offer credentials that simply are not marketable to employers after release. Of the original 63 colleges that participated in the SCP Pilot, roughly half offered a certificate of completion rather than an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Grants Run Out After Eight Semesters

QUALITY AND CONSISTENCY OF EDUCATION are extremely salient to prisoners who must use Pell funds to pay for their classes. Pell awardees are only eligible for eight semesters of funding. Once they have exhausted that limit they cannot receive more federal money. Each semester begun counts as a bite of the apple. This is true even if a student cannot complete classes because of reasons outside of their control. What’s more, this limitation means that incarcerated students, most of whom are naïve to higher education, have little room to adjust their course of study or intended degree after they begin a program. Even for those people who can overcome barriers to eligibility, Pell grants are a transient commodity.

Though this article paints a bleak picture of the prospects for higher education in prisons it is not meant to discourage incarcerated people from pursuing the promise of Pell grants. Rather, it is meant to show that expanded Pell availability for prisoners is not a silver bullet that will significantly move the needle on recidivism. In fact, despite good outcomes after release among those people who gain post-secondary degrees while in prison, after controlling for the fact that people who participate in and finish these programs were more likely than average to succeed after release even before they began classes, the direct effect of higher education on recidivism is doubtful.

Policymakers and advocates should not declare “Mission Accomplished” after the expansion of Pell. Instead, the failures of the SCP Pilot should motivate them to loosen eligibility requirements, improve college readiness programs, and invest in the infrastructure necessary to deliver consistent curricula and attract quality providers. For their part, prisoners should be savvy consumers of higher education and not rush into programs simply because they are available. Higher education in prisons is still beset by pitfalls, and the current celebratory atmosphere inspired by the expansion of Pell is not only unwarranted but potentially distracting from the work left to be done.

Editor’s note: As reported by Mother Jones on February 8, 2022, prison communications giant Aventiv Technologies (the owner of telecom company Securus) was reportedly eyeing the resumption of Pell grants to prisoners when it began charging some partner institutions to use the Lantern education platform provided through its JPay subsidiary. Already the company has asked for fees to use the previously free platform from Washington University of St. Louis and the University of Central Florida, resulting in canceled classes for some prisoners who were counting on completing them for college credit.

As the company looks for partner schools willing to kickback some of the new money the government will provide, it will be more important than ever for students to consider the school and its program to determine the true value of any college credits earned, especially if the program offers no way to continue work toward a degree after release.

Richard Hahn is a criminal justice senior fellow at The Niskanen Center.

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