About

We’re working to transform local reporting on college by combining the sophistication of a national newsroom that knows a topic very deeply with the engagement of a community newsroom that knows a place very deeply.

Rethinking the student experience in prison education programs

The student debate team from the Maine Department of Corrections beat MIT in a debate about term limits for Supreme Court justices. Photo courtesy of Daniel Throop.

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

College Inside
Sign up for the newsletter

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

Subscription received!

Please check your email to confirm your newsletter subscription.


We’re sending out a bonus, weekend edition of College Inside from the 2022 National Conference for Higher Education in Prison. The biggest highlights occurred when students incarcerated at Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in southern Colorado had the chance to interact virtually with keynote speaker Ruth Wilson Gilmore, geography professor and director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the City University of New York. A debate team from the Maine Department of Corrections also beat MIT in a debate about term limits for Supreme Court justices. 

Other conversations centered on the tensions between scalability and quality, the role of educational technology in program delivery, and who might be left behind with so much focus on Pell. It also provided an opportunity to hear from Education Department representatives on how they are working with colleges and departments of corrections to prepare for the return of Pell Grants for people in prison next year.

Short on time? Here’s what you need to know:

  • The final rules for Pell Grant implementation will be published by November 1 and the Education Department will also provide “plain language guidance” for colleges.
  • The department has created a paper FAFSA application specifically for incarcerated students that will be available in the next few months.
  • The department has confirmed that students who are incarcerated will not be required to complete verification for the 2023-24 year.
  • Pell restoration allows programs to do more long-range planning and invest more resources, higher ed representatives say, but colleges also need to think about how to support students who aren’t eligible for Pell Grants. 
  • The role of ed tech in prison education programs is central to the debate about quality and scalability, particularly when it comes to determining whether programs are virtual or face-to-face. 
  • Colleges are also starting to think about issues such as freedom of choice when it comes to classes and majors and how to design programs to maximize benefits in case students are transferred.

What’s next for Pell Grants in prison?

Over the last five years, almost 30,000 students have pursued postsecondary education in prison, and over 9,000 students have earned a degree or certificate through the Second Chance Pell program, according to the U.S. Education Department. That pilot program was put in place in 2015 under the Obama administration, opening up eligibility for people in prison for the first time since the 1994 crime bill gutted federal funding for higher education behind bars.

Now those numbers are poised to expand as an estimated 450,000 incarcerated students will once again become eligible for Pell Grants as of July 2023. In a session at the 2022 National Conference for Higher Education in Prison, moderated by Bradley Custer of the Center for American Progress, Education Department officials laid out some of the issues they are thinking about ahead of Pell restoration next year.

“The Second Chance Pell experiment has demonstrated that college, universities, and correctional systems can work together to transform teaching and learning and prison classrooms,” said Amy Loyd, assistant secretary of the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education at the Education Department.

She noted that two of the biggest barriers – such as failing to register for Selective Service and or having a drug conviction – to Pell Grant eligibility have already been removed. The Education Department is also rolling out the “fresh start” initiative for defaulted borrowers, including those who are incarcerated, to bring their student loans into good standing. The measure restores Pell Grant eligibility for people who were previously in default.

Pell restoration has required the federal student aid office to rethink the ways that they have traditionally provided financial aid to students, particularly when it comes to technology, said David Musser, director of policy innovation and dissemination at the Education Department.

The Education Department has created a paper FAFSA application specifically for incarcerated students that will be available in the next few months on the Federal Student Aid Knowledge Center website, Musser said.

“We recognize that so much of what happens with individuals that are incarcerated happens on paper,” he said.

He said that because incarcerated students generally only apply to a single college, “the school that works with them has the unique ability to guide them.”

The final rules will be published by November 1 and the department will also provide “plain language guidance” for colleges in what is known as a “Dear Colleague” letter.

The Education Department has already begun to make changes that make the process more transparent for incarcerated students, Musser said. While failing to register for Selective Service and having a drug conviction have not disqualified students from Pell Grants since the 2021-22 academic year, those questions have been removed for the first time from the 2023-24 Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA. The application opened on October 1. Previously students were often unsure about whether or not they needed to answer those questions.

The Education Department is also working on ways to improve the verification process, Musser said. Verification is a process where students are selected to make sure the data that they provided is accurate. One of the lessons learned from Second Chance Pell was that many people who are incarcerated don’t have access to documentation to prove their answers are correct.

The department has confirmed that students who are incarcerated will not be required to complete verification for the 2023-24 year. “Schools can simply indicate that they are incarcerated, and they can bypass that entire process,” Musser said.

Another challenge with Pell expansion is the need to simultaneously increase secondary education in prisons, said Sean Addie, the department’s director of correctional education. More needs to be done when it comes to providing high school equivalency in order to prepare more students to be able to take advantage of Pell, he added.

Addie said that many states currently leave federal funding, such as Perkins dollars, for secondary education on the table. “[We] need to be thinking proactively about how we can get students who maybe are not yet ready for postsecondary education ready for postsecondary education now that there are these new opportunities,” he said.

When asked what measures are being considered to make sure that state departments of corrections act in good faith partnership with colleges and universities, Musser noted that the Education Department does not have direct authority over correctional agencies or facilities.

“So our efforts in this area are more around ensuring that [educational] institutions work with those facilities to ensure that they’re following the rules and then the Department [of Education] evaluates the institutions on whether the overall regulations have been followed,” he said.

The Education Department conducts annual audits of all higher education institutions and they can conduct program reviews if there is indication of noncompliance.

Musser said that colleges are required by accrediting agencies to provide a “teach out plan” to allow students to transition to another program if a campus or instructional site shuts down.

“Obviously, the limited nature of postsecondary education currently in carceral settings makes that part very challenging,” he said. “It’s not yet clear to us…how institutions will be able to transition students. Perhaps they can work out if there are facilities where students are routinely transferred within a state.”

He also noted that incarcerated students in a program that shuts down could be eligible for restoration of their lifetime Pell Grant eligibility for the period that they were enrolled.

++Related coverage: Read our deep dive into the public comments on the proposed Pell Grant regulations for prison education programs.

Quality, scalability and the role of tech in prison education

The return of Pell Grants for people in prison allows programs to do more long-range planning and invest more resources in prison education, said Sheila Meiman, director of the Returning & Incarcerated Student Education program at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey.

There was always concern during the Second Chance Pell pilot that the funding might dry up. “It’s going to give a lot of colleges the certainty to be able to invest in the program without worrying whether we’re on a year-by-year basis,” she said.

Meiman added that it will also address students’ concerns about program sustainability. “The scars from the mid 90s are still there, and the population wonders, ‘Will education go away?’”

While Pell Grants will expand access for many students, others will be left behind.

A student at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility who had earned a college degree before he was incarcerated noted he’s excluded from the expansion because they can only be used for first-time undergraduate programs. “In truth, the Pell Grant doesn’t do me any good because I don’t qualify,” he said.

Meiman said that colleges need to continue to think about continuing to increase access and provide financial support to students who are not Pell eligible.

Two giant bureaucracies

With the expansion of Pell Grants next year, many new programs are just getting off the ground. Prison educators are finding themselves caught between two giant monoliths: higher education institutions and departments of corrections.

“I have been surprised by the challenges of the academic bureaucracy and how those rival the challenges of the prison bureaucracy,” said Keramet Reiter, criminology professor at University of California, Irvine. She is the director of LIFTED, the first prison bachelor’s program in the University of California system.

Pell reinstatement will not only help make programs more sustainable, but also allow them to scale, said Heather Erwin, a consultant with American Institutes for Research and former director of a prison education program at University of Iowa.

But “there’s some fear or concern that higher education in prison scalability can’t coexist with high quality,” Erwin said.

The role of ed tech in prison education programs are central to the debate about quality and scalability, particularly when it comes to determining whether programs are virtual or face-to-face. Many of the more established liberal arts programs put a primacy on their physical presence in facilities, but offering in-person programs can be challenging at prisons located in rural areas.

Brandon Brown, a PhD student at George Mason University who started his graduate education while incarcerated in Maine, said that using technology will be necessary because it will be impossible to immediately expand the number of in-person programs.

Technology also needs to be embraced to provide student services such as academic advising that might not always be readily available in prisons, Brown said.

Freedom of choice

The Prison Education Partnership at the University of Maine at Augusta blends a cohort model with online options. The program serves 140 students across seven facilities.

Students start in a cohort to take their general education requirements, but then they can branch off into different majors. “We try to blend it with the best of both worlds,” said director Amanda Nowak. “They start off together having that strong support network as they transition into college. But then it transitions into [prioritizing] their freedom to choose their own courses and their own degree paths.”

They offer some synchronous online classes across multiple prisons, and incarcerated students can also take asynchronous classes available on the main campus, Nowak said. Online classes also expand the freedom of choice that students have.

Prison education programs are often constrained in what they can offer by issues ranging from instructor availability and classroom space to whether or not they have enough students to fill a particular class.

A student from Arkansas Valley, the prison in Colorado, said that people who have long sentences are most interested in gaining practical skills, such as policymaking. “Those of us doing life really don’t care whether we get degrees or not,” he said. “We just want to be able to speak the language.”

But for those getting out soon, they “really would like their degrees in what it is that they are looking to pursue when they get out.”

Colleges are also looking for ways to address issues such as students being transferred to other facilities part way through degree programs. Penn State will be using Pell funding to offer for-credit classes for the first time, eventually leading to a bachelor’s degree. They are considering how to build in different certificates, such as a certified recovery specialist certification, as students move through the bachelor’s program.

“We’re trying to figure out how we can get the most out of those credit hours that students will be taking and make sure that if they leave at year one…or if they stay all the way through the bachelors, they have all sorts of options…that they can take with them,” said Liana Glew, prison education program manager.

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 charlotte@opencampusmedia.org 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 https://bit.ly/3I7J2dG.  

— Charlotte West

Correction: This story was updated on October 17 to accurately reflect Amy Loyd’s current title of assistant secretary of the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education at the Education Department.  

Related Posts