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A surprising barrier to college

Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

This newsletter is about the role of higher ed in society. Each week, we highlight how college is (or is not) working for citizens and communities. It goes out most Friday mornings — If someone forwarded this to you, you can sign up for your own copy here.


Decades-old deeds and DNA tests

Before starting college, Larry Fordham Jr., needed to track down decades-old documents. His parents had moved from the house he’d been living in with them back in 1989, and they hadn’t kept a copy of the deed, 30-year-old tax records, or utility bills.

Eventually, Fordham wrote to the county property appraiser’s office pleading for help. A month later, they found a copy of his parents’ deed in the archives.

Fordham needed that old proof of residency to be able to pay the much lower, in-state tuition at a prison program offered by Miami Dade College. Even though he has been incarcerated in Florida’s prisons since 1990, the state department of education doesn’t consider him a resident. For that, he had to establish he’d been living in Florida for the 12 months before he went to prison.

Many states require students, including those in prison, to be a resident for a year before they’re eligible for in-state tuition. But Florida is an outlier with its explicit ban on establishing residency while in state prisons, our national reporter Charlotte West wrote this week, in a story she co-reported with Ryan Moser, a writer currently serving eight years in prison in Florida. 

‘Our Biggest Roadblock’
Larry Fordham Jr. (behind the camera) in his film class. Photo: Miami Dade College

In practice, the Florida policy means that college is unaffordable for anyone who isn’t a state resident or who can’t produce the right documents, they reported. And with the broad expansion of Pell Grants for incarcerated students arriving in 2023, the residency requirement could prevent thousands of people in Florida’s prisons from pursuing higher education. (The maximum Pell Grant for 2021-22 is $6,495, while non-resident tuition at Miami Dade College is around $9,660 for the academic year.) 

“This has become our biggest roadblock,” Samantha Carlo, a professor and the co-directer of Miami Dade’s Second Chance Pell program, told Charlotte

Students must produce multiple types of evidence to prove they lived in Florida before they were locked up. At least one document must be something like a state voter registration card, a driver’s license or vehicle registration. A second document such as a utility bill, lease, court record or proof of family relationship to a Florida resident is also required. 

Carlo and her counterparts across the state have found themselves doing a lot of legwork to help students. She’s contacted probation officers and parents who’ve been estranged from their imprisoned children. She’s even tried to get a DNA test done to show evidence of a fraternal relationship. 

“It tears my heart out,” she said, “to tell someone who’s eager to start his college career that we’re sorry he can’t because of technicalities.” 

+ Read Charlotte and Ryan’s story.

++ Speaking of bureaucratic hurdles, the State University of New York announced this week that it would stop withholding transcripts from students who had outstanding bills. (Read more about how this practice affects students nationwide, plus our local reporters’ coverage of programs to help students overcome this barrier to enrollment in Northeast Ohio and Indiana.)

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Proposed Indiana law could unlock millions in college financial aid
Proposed Indiana law could unlock millions in college financial aidThe bill would require students to fill out the federal financial aid application. Indiana ranked in the bottom half of states last year for FAFSA completion, with 56% of high-school seniors filing.

In Colorado: Colorado higher education leaders: Students will lose if colleges don’t get more funding. “Our message to the state recognizes this moment in time,” one president said, “where we can choose between promise and peril for higher education.”

In Mile Markers: A Kentucky college’s lesson in equity. Berea College provides an example of how federal GEAR UP money can shift aspirations and outcomes in rural communities. It’s also a glimpse into what is about to be lost in Maine and six other states that recently lost those funds.

In The Job: Measuring job market success. Better data and more urgency on equity gaps—as well as the struggle by businesses to fill open jobs—are fueling an energized push to assess student outcomes.

In latitude(s): Biden administration expands popular work program for foreign students. It’s one of a number of policy changes aimed at attracting and retaining global talent.

+ Sign up for our newsletters, written by Open Campus national reporters and other expert journalists.

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