In 1994, Congress passed a bill drafted by then-senator Joe Biden, prohibiting incarcerated persons from accessing federal Pell Grants. Last month, after 26 years, this ban was finally lifted.
Advocates and practitioners agree the change is monumental for those in prison. They say much of the credit for the victory goes to those formerly incarcerated – and their organizations, such as the Unlock Higher Ed coalition – who demonstrated the value of education and the human potential for change.
“I know the benefits of education for those coming out of prison,” said Tracy Andrus, professor of criminal justice at Wiley College in Texas who was incarcerated in the 1990s. Andrus is also the principal of Lee P. Brown Criminal Justice Institute in Wiley and was the first African American to earn a doctorate. in juvenile justice. “I was not fortunate enough to have Second Chance Pell.”
But the effort to develop higher education in prison is not over. And the end of the ban has raised new concerns about shoddy programming, implementation and equity.
Restoration and what comes after
Prior to 1994, there were over 300 post-secondary education programs in American prisons. After the ban, that number dropped to around a dozen.
Supporters of the ban have argued that people with criminal records should not have access to federal assistance while those without a conviction go into debt to pay for an education. But advocates of higher education in prison have successfully argued that beyond mere human rights, the practice has its benefits. A 2013 to study of the RAND Corporation estimated that prisoners who enrolled in an education program were 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who did not. Other research has suggested that higher education programs also help reduce violence in prison and make facilities safer.
“E Condemnation and corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice.
The Vera Institute, a policy and research organization focused on the criminal justice system, estimated that nearly half a million inmates could be eligible for Pell grants with the ban lifted.
“We know there is a strong demand from incarcerated people for these opportunities, and there is a ton of interest from corrections and colleges,” said diZerega. “It’s really exciting to think of all the lives that will be good when more people in prison have access to post-secondary education.
The current landscape for financing higher education in prison is diverse. Some programs, like the one Andrus runs at Wiley College, are run with access to Pell through a pilot program, called Second Chance Pell, first launched under the Obama administration. Others charge students for tuition, receive state funding, or use private philanthropy to pay for their programs. Others still cover the costs internally.
Lifting the ban was a top priority for higher education advocates in prison. With their goal achieved, the field now focuses on the quality of university programs approved for federal dollars. Some believe that students could be exploited by predatory institutions that would use the lifelong Pell eligibility of students without providing quality education in return.
“How do you prevent any behavior that might benefit students and create a situation where Pell’s recovery benefits colleges and universities more than students?” Said Mary Gould, director of the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison. “What you don’t want are universities taking advantage because there is now a whole new set of students with money attached to them, at a time when colleges and universities have financial difficulties.”
While there were shoddy programs in the 1990s, before the ban, there are more now, said Erin Corbett, founder and CEO of the Second Chance Educational Alliance, a post-secondary prison program in Connecticut. . “There are more institutions that can view incarcerated students simply as a source of additional income and don’t really care about providing educational opportunities.”
The legislation already has some safeguards to protect students from predatory programs. Institutions must be approved to operate as a facility by the state or the Bureau of Prisons, which must take into account factors such as placement, income, and recidivism rates of those who have continued their education after release. Institutions may not have been subject to any suspension or discipline by an accreditation body in the past five years, and credits must be transferred to at least one state institution (or, in the case of federal prisons, the state where most inmates are living after release). Some of the main targets of these safeguards are for-profit institutions.
But the efforts could go further, say advocates and practitioners.
Corbett said one of the first steps is to operationalize quality and develop metrics to evaluate programs. Last year, the Institute for Higher Education Policy made a first attempt at such a project with the development of key performance indicators evaluate higher education in prison programs.
“The KPIs were definitely the first step,” said Corbett, who has worked on the project and is involved in other efforts to define quality. “But that’s not the end of the conversation.”
Much attention has been paid to the prison education program at Ashland University, especially after a item of the Marshall Project, a media outlet that covers the US criminal justice system, questioned its model of online-only education. The tablet program is one of the biggest prisoners in the United States, but critics say it fails its students in its design and does not prepare them to re-enter society.
“For the moment, there is no measure [for quality]”Said Satra Taylor, Head of Higher Education Justice Initiatives at The Education Trust,” that is why this is such a complicated conversation. “
But efforts to define quality should come from practitioners in the field, Corbett and Taylor said, not people new to the job.
Other measures to ensure quality in the future could include specific accreditation for college prison programs, Andrus said.
“We want to make sure that we have very rigorous curricula,” he said. “The same program that we offer in our colleges and universities should be the same program that we offer to our inmates in prison.”
Colleges could be asked to provide some level of student support services or access to technology for students, Gould said.
Other measures could focus on equity in prisons. Institutions operating in prisons could be asked to ensure that the composition of their incarcerated student body matches the demographics of the prison as a whole. A 2019 to study of New America has suggested that even though incarcerated black and Hispanic students enroll in college programs as often as their white peers, they finish at lower rates. With black men being particularly over-represented in the criminal justice system, many see post-secondary prison programs as a matter of racial justice.
Corbett said she would like to see black colleges and universities more historically offering programs in prisons.
“The HBCUs are uniquely positioned to lead this work because of their institutional background” with students in prison, especially during the civil rights era, she said. “Research is already showing that when students can see teachers and professors who are like them, their results tend to be better. “
Colleges and universities could also offer more STEM degrees, she said. State and local governments could remove barriers that prevent formerly incarcerated people from obtaining professional licenses. They could enact a “ban the box” law that prohibits employers from asking questions about a candidate’s criminal history, Taylor said. They could also create new positions and hire counselors to help inmates navigate the financial aid system.
The stakes in ensuring quality and access are high. While prison education programs are often referred to as “second chances”, some advocates claim that most inmates never had the first chance to get a quality education.
“‘Better than nothing’ is a prevailing philosophy not only in higher education in prison, but probably in many services provided in prison,” Gould said. “It must be recognized that most people in prison have in one way or another during their lifetime been intentionally excluded, marginalized, underserved or lacked adequate access to education.
With that in mind, practitioners and policy makers should be wary of treating post-secondary education simply as a corrective “dose” that can prevent recidivism, she said. This mindset leads to barriers to access such as limiting education only to those guaranteed to be released from prison.
“In far too many situations, education is seen as part of the ‘rehabilitation process’. It is not education with the idea that everyone deserves to have access to quality education, but that education can provide something “corrective”, and this is incredibly problematic “, Gould said. “Recidivism is not an educational outcome. “
Much of the future of higher education in prison has yet to be decided. Although the legislation has been passed and signed, the ban has yet to be fully lifted. The Education Ministry is tasked with doing so before July 1, 2023, but advocates have said they are pushing for it to happen sooner.
“Pell’s restoration is just one part of what should be a larger plan to remove barriers to access for students affected by the criminal justice system,” Taylor said. “There is still work to be done.”