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California College Offers Housing, Services to Formally Incarcerated Students

by Keith Sanders

For decades, prisoners were not eligible for federal financial aid for college education. So when Congress passed the Second Chance Act in 2020, rescinding ineligibility for felons and prisoners to access federal Pell Grant funding for college, advocates, educators and those in prison who might benefit all rejoiced. From a small list of pilot sites, eligibility was set to be restored at lockups throughout the country on July 1, 2023.

“The expansion of the Second Chance Pell Experiment will allow for opportunities to study the best practices for implementing the reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students, and will expand the geographic range of the programs,” the federal Department of Education said.

According to a 2018 report, less than 4% of prisoners obtain a postsecondary education, well below the national average of 29%. Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice, estimates that over 765,000 prisoners will apply for Pell Grants once they become eligible this summer.

The former Pell Grant restrictions also affected prisoners after release. Some convictions, like drug crimes, kept released prisoners ineligible. So did prior default on student loans. Nevertheless, the fact that over 95% of individuals are eventually released from prison – over 600,000 a year – combined with the lifting of Pell Grant eligibility requirements, means that colleges will see an influx of formally incarcerated students.

The barriers individuals face upon release are well documented. Housing, health care, substance abuse treatment, mental health services and employment obstacles make returning to the community a difficult task. Attempting to pursue a college degree on top of that is a big challenge. That is why the vast majority of formerly incarcerated students never return
for their second semester.

Opening Pell Grant eligibility to the incarcerated pushes that timeline forward before release, though prisoners should be wary of the myriad ways their efforts to get an education behind bars may be stymied. [See: PLN, May 2022, p.44.]

For those released, a California State University (CSU) program called Project Rebound has been assisting them in overcoming obstacles. The project began in 1967 and is now established on 15 CSU campuses. At the CSU campus in Fullerton, the John Irwin House opened in 2018 and has supported 21 students who were formally incarcerated. They are provided with stable housing, networking opportunities, academic counseling and tutoring, financial aid assistance and much more by people who were formally incarcerated themselves. Of the 21 students, 20 have either graduated or remain enrolled at the college.

Recidivism rates show how education can help a former prisoner become part of the community again. Those with postsecondary degrees are 45% less likely to return to prison. That number drops to just 1% for those helped by Project Rebound. It is zero for those at the John Irwin House.

Acquiring a college degree also confers other advantages for ex-prisoners. Those with a postsecondary education are more likely to engage in voting and volunteering, and they are less likely to have significant health issues, live in poverty or be unemployed.

Because of Project Rebound’s success, especially its on-campus residences like the John Irwin House – named after the project’s founder – it has been called a “revolutionary” model for providing a solution to housing and other services for the formerly incarcerated at other colleges and universities across America.

Sources: The Hill, The Nation