Welcome to College Inside, a newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. I’m Charlotte West, a national reporter for Open Campus. Sign up for this newsletter here.

College Inside
Sign up for the newsletter

A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. By Charlotte West.

New Pell rules and the collateral consequences of student debt in prison

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

New rules for Pell

On Tuesday, the Education Department released the draft regulations for restoring Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students by July 2023. That comes almost three decades after Congress eliminated federal financial aid for people in prison with the 1994 Crime Bill. Today, the proposed regulations will be posted in the Federal Register, which will kick off a 30-day public comment period.

Some key proposals:

  • State departments of corrections, the federal Bureau of Prisons, and local agencies would oversee and approve prison education programs. During the approval process, they would need to consult with stakeholders, including incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals, as they make decisions. They also would need to look at factors such as whether a program is similar to the programs offered by the college on their regular campus. 
  • Qualifying prison education programs wouldn’t have to lead to a license or certificate, but if they do, the programs would need to be designed to meet the requirements for those in the state where the correctional facility is located (or where most individuals will reside after release, for a federal prison). The programs also would need to lead to occupations without state or federal prohibitions on the licensure or employment of formerly incarcerated individuals. 
  • The regulations also would establish reporting requirements to allow the Education Department to collect data on prison education programs. A recent report on data collection notes that “one of the biggest challenges in understanding the current landscape of postsecondary education in prison is the lack of comprehensive data at the national level.” While there are some surveys and research that provide data on where and how programming is offered, “there is little data available on how incarcerated students enroll, persist, and complete higher education while in prison.”
  • According to the proposed regulations, colleges and corrections departments would need to enter into data-sharing agreements and track students’ transfer and release dates. That means that students who drop out of a program because they are transferred or get out of prison wouldn’t be included in evaluation of retention and persistence, and labor market metrics would only include students who have been released. 

Collection at all costs


A new report from the Student Borrower Protection Center and the National Consumer Law Center examines the intersection of mass incarceration and the student debt crisis. 

“A little considered, but still ruinous collateral consequence of detention or imprisonment is an incarcerated borrower’s spiral into delinquency and default on their federal student loans,” the authors wrote. 

While the Education Department does not track incarcerated borrowers, experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of individuals have entered prison already carrying student loan debt, the report says. Incarcerated borrowers face challenges making monthly payments, communicating with loan servicers, and finding out timely information about debt relief options that might benefit them. 

As Ryan Moser and I have previously reported, student loan default is one of the major barriers currently preventing people in prison from accessing Pell Grants. In April, the Education Department announced a “fresh start” that will bring all defaulted loans, including those belonging to incarcerated borrowers, into good standing. But three months later, the department has yet to share any details of the new program, including when it will go into effect and how they plan to communicate changes to people in prison. 

The new report looks at the collateral consequences of student loan default and delinquency on incarcerated borrowers beyond Pell eligibility, including its impact on reentry. 

“Incarceration-related student debt not only hurts the borrower’s credit, making it even more difficult to secure housing, jobs and transportation after release, it also increases their debt and puts them at risk of wage garnishment and benefit offset upon release–right at the moment when they may be most financially insecure,” the authors wrote. 

An incarcerated student highlighted in the report said that they were never told they could apply for student debt relief programs during their 10-plus year sentence.

“I watched the interest get capitalized and fees accrue while I remained helpless,” they said. “[I]t is an incredible burden to be faced with as soon as you step out of a long-term incarceration.”

The report outlines several recommendations that would improve student loan outcomes for incarcerated borrowers, including canceling student loans for borrowers serving sentences of more than five years and publishing clear information about how current servicing practices and policies affect incarcerated borrowers.

The report argues that the unique needs of incarcerated borrowers should be considered during the Biden administration’s current overhaul of the student loan system. “Providing targeted support to incarcerated borrowers will ensure that these important initiatives have a real chance at success and advancing racial justice goals,” the authors wrote. “Failing to do so could otherwise undermine these initiatives.”

News & views

A recent Arizona Central investigation into prison labor found that Arizona Correctional Industries, a division of the Arizona Department of Corrections that contracts with private companies, is supposed to provide vocational rehabilitation, but they often hire people who already have education and skills rather than spend money on training. Most correctional jobs provide little experience that will help people find employment after release, the newspaper found, and people who worked for correctional industries had similar recidivism rates to the general population, despite department claims that the labor program helps keep people from going back to prison. 

Earlier this year, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services implemented a new policy that prevented prisons from proctoring exams for external correspondence courses, according to The Real News Network. The policy initially prevented at least one student taking courses from Adams State from working towards his degree. The day after the segment aired, prison authorities announced that they had “reconsidered” their earlier decision.

If you’re looking for help starting up or running a prison education program, contact Prison to Professionals (P2P) at

The Alliance for Higher Education in Prison has named a new executive director, Ved Price, who is replacing Mary Gould.  

Register for the virtual 2022 Rise Up Conference on higher education and prison on September 8-9. The two-day conference is designed and produced by directly impacted people. The conference is free and open to anyone, but they optional donations are being collected to cover conference costs and to compensate directly impacted speakers.

Join the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison for a discussion of the documentary film Rebound on August 16 at 1pm pacific/4pm eastern. Registered participants will receive a link to view the film from August 5-19. Register here.

Khalil A. Scott’s essay on the need for higher education in young adult units was republished by our partner, the Prison Journalism Project.

Let’s connect

Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. You can always reach me at on JPay/Securus/Connect Network/Corrlinks or on Twitter at @szarlotka. To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Open Campus Media, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.

We know that not everyone has access to email, so if you’d like to have a print copy College Inside sent to an incarcerated friend or family member, you can sign them up here. We are also publishing the PDFs of our print newsletter on the Open Campus website. 

There is no cost to subscribe to the print edition of College Inside. But as a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on grants and donations to keep bringing you the news about prison education. If you would like to support our work, please send a check made out to Open Campus Media to 1 Thomas Circle NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20005. You can also donate via PayPal at  

If you are a prison educator or a librarian interested in distributing College Inside to your patrons or students, please reach out to discuss how we might work together. 

— Charlotte

Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.