What to know about the new rules for prison education Pell grants

The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday released final rules detailing how colleges can set the stage for enrolling the more than 700,000 incarcerated people expected to apply for Pell Grants to pay for college next summer.

This new pool of potential applicants came about thanks to a law passed by Congress in 2020 that lifted a 26-year ban on federal need-based grants to people in prison.

The new prison education initiative, which takes effect in July, will eventually replace the Second-Chance Pell program, a pilot program that began in 2015 during the Obama administration. Since then, it has grown to promise about 200 higher education institutions to provide prison education programs supported by Pell Grants, currently worth about $7,000 a year.

The ban on Pell Grants for prisoners dates back to 1994, during President Bill Clinton’s administration, when tough-on-crime laws disenfranchised incarcerated people. Proponents of the measure argued that taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for prisons to take college courses.

Joseph R. Biden Jr., then a U.S. senator, supported the crime bill but has since said the approach, which led to a sharp increase in the incarceration of black men, was error. Enrollment in college courses in prison dropped as soon as inmates could no longer use Pell Grants to pay for them.

Since then, restoring benefits to prisoners has gained widespread bipartisan support as a way to turn lives around. reducing recidivism and save taxpayer money. In December 2020, as part of its year-end spending package, Congress committed to restoring Pell access to inmates. The final regulations are based on feedback from the Department’s proposed regulations.

Under the rules, incarcerated students can use Pell Grants to pay for public or nonprofit postsecondary education programs up to the cost of attendance. Anyone participating in an approved prison education program in a jail, prison, juvenile detention facility, or similar facility, regardless of length of sentence or nature of conviction, is eligible to apply. This includes students serving life sentences without parole as well as those who have been sentenced to death. Pell Grants are also available to people with certain drug convictions who were previously excluded from such federal aid.

Applicants must demonstrate financial need and usually have a high school diploma or equivalent.

Here are four things colleges should know about this potential pool of new students:

1. Colleges must go through a lengthy approval process to offer prison programs.

To qualify for a Pell Scholarship, inmates must participate in accredited prison education programs. Once colleges have developed programs that meet the new federal guidelines, they will need approval from the federal, state or other agency that oversees the correctional institution where the programs are offered.

Colleges also need their accrediting agencies to enroll in the first program at the first two correctional facilities they work with. Accreditors visit sites and thoroughly review programs to ensure they meet the same standards as “substantially similar programs” offered by colleges outside prison.

And finally, the college’s first prison education plans must be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

2. Safeguards help prevent colleges hungry for more students from offering poor programs.

Under the new regulations, credits earned by incarcerated students with Pell Grants must be transferable to at least one postsecondary institution. Qualifying prison programs are not required to include licensure or certification in their field of study, but if they do, they must meet the educational requirements for licensure in the state in which the prison is located, or for federal prisons. most prisoners survive after release.

Students cannot enroll in a program that leads to licensure or employment in an occupation that is not open to someone with their criminal conviction. This prevents students from depleting their limited Pell funds for programs that will not help them upon release. For this reason, some programs require colleges to be familiar with their state’s licensing requirements, as well as the types of crimes each student was convicted of. Hairdressers in Delaware and funeral directors in Illinois are among the professions for which, at least until recently, people with criminal convictions could not obtain licenses. These laws are changing as states seek to narrow such restrictions to cases where ex-inmates’ employment obligations are directly related to the crimes they committed.

For-profit colleges are prohibited from offering Pell-funded programs to incarcerated students, and colleges that enroll more than 25 percent of their students in prison programs need special exemptions.

3. Local, state, and federal agencies that oversee prisons have broad authority over prison education.

These institutions are responsible for determining whether courses are in the “best interests” of students.

Giving correctional facilities so much power over what is taught in prison upsets some advocates for the incarcerated. They argue that prisons are more concerned with maintaining order and security than providing valuable educational opportunities, and lack the expertise to assess the quality of educational programs.

The Board of Education made some concessions based on comments received after the proposed regulations were published. For example, “the final regulations make it optional for supervisory units to consider outcome factors such as earnings, employment, and post-release enrollment in determining whether a program is in the student’s best interest,” the regulations state. “However, supervisory units must still consider program inputs such as the experience and credentials of instructors, the availability of academic and career counseling services, and the transferability of credits.”

The regulations require correctional agencies to consult with “relevant stakeholders,” including organizations representing people in prison, to determine whether students’ best interests are being served.

4. Colleges must collect data about their programs and submit it annually to the Department of Education.

The purpose of this measure is to ensure the effectiveness of prison training programs and to fulfill a congressional mandate that the Department of Education annually publish information on the effectiveness of the programs. The regulations do not specify exactly what data colleges must collect after the date of release or transfer on all participants in prison education.

That means colleges will likely need to hire more staff to collect data and track program progress. The programs are approved for initial two-year periods, which the department says is “long enough to evaluate the results of shorter programs and ensure accountability for poorly performing programs.” Programs that do not qualify may be barred from enrolling more students, but should allow currently enrolled students to graduate.

The Vera Institute of Justice estimates that 760,000 incarcerated people qualify for a Pell Grant. In a statement welcoming the new regulations, the institute said that “access to college in prison makes correctional facilities safer for people who live and work in prison, improves students’ sense of self-worth and skills, reduces the likelihood of recidivism, increases graduates’ employment and earning potential upon release, and ultimately promotes racial equity in our communities.” , while saving the taxpayer money.

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