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When $93 is a barrier to college

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The Weekly Dispatch
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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments. By Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood

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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.


A ‘fresh start’

Back in the fall Charlotte West, our national reporter covering education in prison, got a draft of a story that mentioned some of the bureaucratic hurdles incarcerated students face in Florida.

For one, being locked up there does not make you a state resident. And out-of-state tuition usually puts college out of reach for people in prison. 

The piece mentioned another barrier, too, one with even broader ramifications: Student loan defaults.

The writer, Ryan Moser, is currently serving eight years in Florida prisons. He was reporting out the stories of others inside with him, but he’d also experienced frustrations of his own. His $5,000 in student debt has prevented him from taking advantage of college programs. He struggled to get help rehabilitating his defaulted loans, and because of that is ineligible for federal financial aid — the current way most people pay for college in prison.

As policymakers are preparing for full reinstatement of Pell Grants to the prison population next year (reversing a decades-old ban), this, Charlotte realized, was poised to be a significant, little-discussed barrier to broadening access. She and Ryan began reporting that story.

Anyone who has defaulted on a student loan is ineligible for federal financial aid, and bringing loans back into good standing poses a burden for many borrowers. But people in prison, especially those who don’t have family support on the outside, are often unable to do something as simple as pick up the phone to call their loan servicer or set up a repayment plan online. 

Communication barriers

There’s the story of Amanda Newman, for example. She has three student loans that have been in default since before she went to prison. For more than a year, she’s been trying to bring her loan into good standing so she could take college classes through a program her correctional facility in Michigan offers through Jackson College. 

She sent a handwritten letter to the Education Department requesting information on her loan and informing them that she was in prison. In response, she received paperwork for her counselor to fill out verifying her incarceration, which she promptly sent off. Almost a year later, she’d heard nothing about the status of her loan. 

Like Newman, most people in prison don’t have access to the internet to look up information about their loans or set up payment plans. Toll-free, 1-800 numbers are blocked unless they are on a special list approved by the prison administration, outgoing phone calls are limited to 15 minutes, and prisoners can’t receive incoming calls. 

There’s a happy ending to her story. (Read Charlotte and Ryan’s piece for the details.) But the amount of debt that had kept her out of college? $93.05. 

Big news

And now, it turns out, there’s a fix for more people like Newman, too.

In a big announcement this week, the Education Department said it will bring all defaulted loans into good standing, a move that could significantly increase access to college-in-prison programs over the next few years. 

The department’s announcement specified that people in prison will, like other borrowers, qualify for a “fresh start” when the student loan payment pause, which has been in effect since March 2020, ends in August. 

The “fresh start” policy will bring all eligible defaulted loans into good standing. All borrowers, including those in prison, will have: the default record removed from their credit history, their eligibility for federal student aid restored, and loan collection efforts stopped. They will also be able to consolidate their loans and enter into a repayment plan. 

Fixing the student loan default problem was necessary, one policy analyst told Charlotte, if the goal of restoring Pell Grants to people in prison was to expand college access.

The news marks a huge win for incarcerated students and for advocates of prison education. But there are still complications, Charlotte points out:

  • We still don’t know when this will be implemented.
  • We also don’t know what people will have to do to keep their loans in good standing after the fresh start.
  • If this policy just removes a person’s default record but doesn’t create an easier way for people to enter into repayment plans it’s just kicking the can down the road.

And then there’s the red tape — which seems to permeate a lot of Charlotte’s coverage. That’s beyond what one Ed Department announcement can solve.

“This potentially fixes this specific issue,” Charlotte says, “but the communication and tech access issues remain a challenge for prison education in general.”

— Sara Hebel

+ Read the full story, and sign up for Charlotte’s newsletter, College Inside.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

College presidents now have final say on tenure after Mississippi board quietly revises policy
College presidents now have final say on tenure after Mississippi board quietly revises policy Before granting tenure, presidents can now take into account a faculty member’s “effectiveness, accuracy, and integrity in communications” as well as their “collegiality” — new language the board added to its policies.

In Pittsburgh: College programs for students with disabilities are growing in Western PA, but some have faced challenges. Inclusive postsecondary programs are complicated to offer, and some have faced instability.

In Colorado: A Denver scholarship foundation wanted to know how to help Hispanic men get to college. Here’s what it found.

In Indiana: How much money do high school graduates make? Indiana digs into the numbers. State officials hope the new information moves the goalpost beyond high school graduation.

In Cleveland: State funding in Ohio aims to help address truck driving shortages. The chancellor of Ohio’s Department of Higher Education said the pandemic highlighted the urgency around the issue.

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