A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. Written by Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West. Sign up for this newsletter here.

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

Short on time? Here’s what you need to know about the public comments submitted last month on the Education Department’s proposed rules for Pell Grants for incarcerated students.

  • Prison education programs were concerned about the role of state and federal corrections departments in approving and evaluating prison education programs, the specific metrics used to evaluate them, and a 2-year timeline for data reporting and evaluation. 
  • Some stakeholders proposed greater accountability mechanisms for corrections agencies and/or an appeals process if programs were denied. 
  • The current proposed metrics, including job placement rates, are prescriptive and difficult to track and leave out other metrics related to equity and access, advocates said. 
  • Colleges operating print-based programs noted that while they serve a large number of prisons, there are very few students at each facility. The proposed process would be burdensome for them to seek agreements with every corrections department and they urged for a different approval method. 
  • Taking into account the public comments, the Education Department will finalize the Pell regulations this fall to allow programs to apply for approval for fall 2023.

‘A lack of expertise and capacity’

Many comments focused on the role of corrections agencies in approving and evaluating prison education programs. They have neither the expertise nor the resources to properly evaluate education programs, advocates said. In addition, they argued that the regulation is asking corrections departments to do what state higher education departments and accrediting agencies already do. 

Commenters expressed concern that the extra burden put on corrections agencies could disincentivize them from partnering with colleges to offer education in the first place and produce unintended barriers to new programs, particularly in light of the staff shortages that have plagued corrections departments across the country. 

“Beyond a lack of expertise, oversight entities also lack the staff capacity and resources/funding to fulfill this role, which may discourage them from supporting postsecondary programing simply due to the regulatory burden,” Ithaka S+R wrote

“Moreover, correctional agencies operate from a distinctly different set of priorities, namely security and control, that may fundamentally disincline them from supporting access to higher education for those in their custody.”

While corrections agencies would ultimately have authority to determine which programs are allowed into facilities, “requiring DOCs to monitor and evaluate prison education programs is unnecessary because it is not mandated by statute and accreditation and approval agencies already oversee higher education,” noted the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison.

The Bard Prison Initiative, which serves 300 students in seven New York prisons, said that higher education in prison should reflect the same standards and be responsible to the same agencies that accredit and monitor higher education outside of prison. 

“The more we create separate and prison-specific processes, the less college-in-prison will resemble higher education outside of prison and risk becoming a backwater of low quality and exploitation,” they wrote. 

The proposed regulations also give broad discretion to correctional agencies in determining which students would be admitted to programs. While Pell eligibility is “sentence-blind,” some advocates also expressed concern that corrections agencies would limit enrollment to people who will be released soon or exclude learners with certain convictions. They urged the Education Department to explicitly prevent corrections agencies from adding student eligibility restrictions.

Some stakeholders also proposed greater accountability mechanisms for corrections agencies and/or an appeals process if programs were denied, and advocated allowing states more room to determine the appropriate entity to perform monitoring and evaluation of prison education programs. 

Must vs. may

The conversation about metrics hinged largely on the use of a single word: must. A big part of the role of oversight entities is to approve prison education programs and determine whether they meet the “best interest” of the students. The language matters because “must” requires a program to collect data on those metrics, whereas “may” does not.

The proposed rules use the term “must” in laying out a list of data that corrections agencies and colleges have to collect. But many commenters argued for more flexibility in determining what is actually feasible and relevant to their particular program. 

The data the proposed rules would require includes (see page 2 of the proposed regulations for more details):

  • Further education
  • Job placement rates
  • Earnings
  • Instructor turnover
  • Credit transfer and degree pathways
  • Academic and career advising. 

The current list of metrics, representatives of prison ed programs and researchers argued, was adopted from the language in the bill passed by Congress, but they were intended to be examples of the things that agencies might consider when looking at programs, some commentators noted. They are prescriptive and not based on research, much of which is still nascent, critics said. 

Hudson Link expressed concern that the current required metrics could lead to some students being denied admission and others being admitted because they were likely to be successful based on those criteria. “A devastating consequence of this could be college programs creating admissions practices that screen for a student’s type of conviction, the number of years on their sentence, or other criteria that would result in a student body with as few reentry barriers as possible,” they wrote. 

Several state agencies reported that they would be unable to meet some of the data collection requirements. The Kansas Department of Corrections said that it could not track job placement rates, partly because it allows eligible students regardless of length of sentence into programs, but also because the department has specific policies prohibiting contact with a person returning to the community, and the state agencies in Kansas do not currently have any form of data-sharing agreement in place.

Other state correctional agencies indicated that they do not want to be responsible for assessing whether or not prison education programs were operating in the “best interest” of students, notably the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. “We are gravely concerned about being the entity to determine the qualifications of college professors, staff turnover, transferability of credits earned, and professor performance evaluations,” Anthony J. Annucci, acting commissioner, wrote on behalf of the department. 

Their position deviated from that of the Correctional Leadership Association, which represents the leaders of all U.S. state corrections agencies, the federal Bureau of Prisons, military prisons, and several larger county correctional agencies. “We believe that corrections directors are the appropriate entity to approve or reject a [prison education program] and conduct the ‘best interests determination’,” executive director Kevin Kempf wrote.

“While we appreciate that stakeholders and advocates in the prison education space have raised concerns about this designation…given the nature of correctional institutions and safety and security considerations, corrections agencies must be given the authority to assess and evaluate whether a prison education program should be permitted inside a facility.”

Reentry services was another theme in many of the comments. The nonprofit College and Community Fellowship noted that several of the metrics focus on reentry indicators, but students cannot meet them without reentry support. Another issue brought up was the two-year time frame for data collection and reporting, which some stakeholders noted would not be feasible given the time it takes to set up data sharing agreements. 

Correspondence courses and juvenile facilities

Colleges such as Adams State University and Rio Salado Community College that offer print-based programs are urging more clarification around correspondence classes, including specifying that correspondence students are Pell eligible and including a different approval process that recognizes their unique instruction mode.

They argue that correspondence courses are the only options for students in some places, but because they serve a limited number of students in many facilities it’s not practical to enter into agreements with every single corrections agency. Adams State, for instance, serves 800 students in 357 facilities in 50 states. Only 12 percent of the facilities served have more than five Adams State students. 

Rio Salado College, a two-year college in Arizona, enrolls 1000 correspondence students at 45 different facilities. Nearly half of those facilities had only one student. “It is unlikely that any of the facilities would collaborate or engage in the cumbersome prison education program application and evaluative process for a handful of students,” they wrote

Juvenile justice advocates such as the Youth Law Center also noted that the proposed regulations remove the current Pell eligibility for people in juvenile justice facilities and county jails. In 2014, the Education Department clarified that under current rules, people who are incarcerated in local or county jails, or juvenile detention facilities, ARE eligible for Pell grants for any education program they can access from their facility. The same applies to people in pretrial detention, or who are awaiting sentencing. 

The proposed regulations would allow people in juvenile facilities or jails who are already enrolled in college programs to continue to use Pell until 2029, but would require new students confined in those facilities to be enrolled in an approved prison education program. 

++ To browse all the public comments on Pell for prison education programs, see the downloaded files here. Thanks to Bradley Custer of the Center for American Progress for his assistance in collecting the comments. 

News & views

The Education Department has clarified the following rules around student loan forgiveness that are relevant to incarcerated borrowers:

  • Defaulted loans are eligible for relief. Incarcerated borrowers who have less than $10K in debt will have their loans forgiven and DO NOT need to apply for “fresh start”, another new program that brings defaulted loans into good standing (we which detail here). Defaulted borrowers who will still have a balance after cancellation will have until December 31, 2023, which is one year after the current interest moratorium expires at the end of 2022. Information on how to apply for fresh start has not been released yet. 
  • Private student loans are NOT eligible for debt forgiveness. 
  • There will be a paper form for student loan forgiveness, but it won’t come out until sometime after the online form becomes available in early October. Borrowers will have until December 31, 2023 to apply for forgiveness.

For the Associated Press, Aaron Morrison reported on who President Biden’s student loan forgiveness leaves out: a generation of Black and Hispanic people who were shut out of federal financial aid during the U.S. war on drugs. “An estimated hundreds of thousands of convicted drug offenders had their access to federal financial aid delayed or denied, including Pell Grants and student loans,” Morrison wrote. “If they wanted to go to college after their prison terms ended, these offenders had to take on larger, often predatory, private student loans. Some were discouraged from seeking federal aid by a requirement to disclose their drug record on financial aid applications, while others put off attending college or dropped out entirely.”

Even though the First Step Act was a bipartisan, landmark criminal justice reform act signed by President Trump in 2018, conservative media outlets and politicians are lambasting politicians and others who hire formerly incarcerated people. “Ninety-five percent of state prisoners will be set free at some point,” wrote Billy Binion for Reason. “The question we have as a society is what we let them do with that freedom when they get it. If you support law and order, you should want all of them to succeed for the sake of that principle, not despite it.”

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.

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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 West

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