For about two decades, a college education has been out of reach for Robert Anthony. 

The former Wilkinsburg resident briefly attended what’s now Pennsylvania Western University Clarion, but he was later incarcerated at 21. Anthony, now 42, is serving a life sentence at State Correctional Institution [SCI] Rockview, in Centre County. Like most of the state’s prisons, his facility doesn’t offer college degree programs. 

He could try to transfer to one that does, but he’s secured a tutoring job that he doesn’t want to lose by going elsewhere. He tried to take a course through Ohio University, but it would’ve cost him about $1,000. It’s not feasible when he earns up to 50 cents an hour for working in prison, netting about $45 to $50 a month, he said. 

Anthony, who is pursuing a commutation of his sentence, wants to earn a bachelor’s degree, particularly in psychology or criminal justice. So, when he met with a counselor at SCI Rockview one April morning, he agreed to be placed on a waitlist for college-in-prison programs supported by federal Pell Grants. 

For nearly 30 years, the U.S. government has barred incarcerated people from accessing these grants, which provide up to $7,395 in yearly financial aid to low-income students. Many people in prison had relied on the aid to pay for college, given the wages they earn inside, but the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act revoked their eligibility. As a result, college opportunities in prisons – of which there were hundreds – largely vanished.

That’s changing in July. More than 700,000 incarcerated people are expected to become eligible for aid, including some of the roughly 40,000 people in Pennsylvania state prisons. Most, though, won’t be able to access a college education right away. While several colleges in the state are set to operate programs this fall, according to the Department of Corrections, others will likely crop up over the next year. Some colleges may not offer programs at all. “This will be a work in progress,” a department spokesperson said. 

Even with programs and grants available, people inside may face educational challenges and barriers to access. Late last fall, about 100 people in Pennsylvania state prisons – nearly all men – were enrolled in college programs, while about 200 were waitlisted. Their choices for programs could be limited, as Pell funds often do not fully cover tuition at four-year universities. Enrolled students must learn with limited technology, restrictions on materials and facility lockdowns that can impact class schedules. 

Above all, people in prison need to know that the opportunity exists, and how it works. And many don’t.

Despite the potential obstacles, expanding college programs in prison is an important undertaking. Those who participate are less likely to be reincarcerated and more likely to gain employment upon release. The benefits also extend to people serving lengthy or life sentences, who can gain enrichment and a sense of purpose.

A college education “would mean so much,” Anthony said, speaking over the phone shortly after meeting with the counselor. He’d be able to show his family, “I still did something positive. I didn’t stay down when I was knocked down. I got over it, and I achieved something great.”

“Right now? I feel great,” he said. “I feel motivated.”

When asked in May, none of the universities in Pittsburgh shared formal plans to offer Pell-funded programs in prison. The University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University offer Inside-Out programs, which allow incarcerated people to take free courses alongside outside students who come into the prison, but those do not directly lead to a degree or credential. 

Lessons from the trial run

Some incarcerated people in Pennsylvania state prisons have already participated in Pell-funded college programs through a federal pilot program, the Second Chance Pell Experiment. The pilot –  essentially a trial-run of the reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility – began nationwide in 2015. Five universities in the state offer such programs at six state prisons. 

Jy’Aire Smith-Pennick remembers hearing rumors that his prison, SCI Chester, might offer an associate’s degree program – “and it came to be,” he said. The 27-year-old is now pursuing a degree in liberal arts through Eastern University’s Pell-funded program. 

“Education has opened a lot of doors for me, and it’s given me a new perspective on life. It’s really breathed some hope into me,” said Smith-Pennick, who has been incarcerated at SCI Chester for about six years. He hopes to eventually earn a doctorate after he finishes the 14 years he’s still expected to serve.

His time at Eastern has also shown him where prison education can improve. For one, Smith-Pennick said he and his peers aren’t able to use computers for their classes, meaning all of their coursework is done by hand, and they can’t easily contact their professors afterward. The state’s programs have “very limited” access to technology, according to the corrections department. 

Several university administrators told PublicSource that greater access to technology would be valuable, but some said professors have found ways to navigate the gaps. Villanova University, for example, taught a coding class by having the professor copy over the students’ handwritten code onto computers back on campus. But with the expansion of Pell Grant eligibility on the horizon, Smith-Pennick said that access is essential.

The prison environment, where security is paramount, can also complicate efforts to educate students. At the University of Scranton, professors send books and print packets to SCI Dallas roughly four months in advance, as they’re unable to bring in paper materials. The prison has removed students from the program when it’s determined that they’ve engaged in misconduct. 

While some university administrators acknowledged that prison operations can cause friction, several spoke positively about their relationships with the partner prisons or corrections department. Successful partnerships require mutual effort, but universities have to be flexible, creative and willing to accept that corrections departments prioritize security over education, said Kate Meloney, director of Villanova’s program at SCI Phoenix. 

“Their main goal has to be security, and that is not going to change, and you are not going to change that. But there is a desire there to better the lives of the residents,” she said. “Most of the time, the Department of Corrections will want to work with you to make this a success.”

Going forward, Smith-Pennick wants to see some of that support trickle down to the people who staff prisons, too. He said his professors and classmates have dealt with sly remarks and a lack of buy-in from some prison staff. 

“You can have the best ideas, but if the people that are in the positions of power don’t support it, and they put obstacles in your way, it’s going to be very difficult to maneuver around that. That doesn’t mean they won’t be successful. But it’ll be a long road,” he said. 

What comes next

As Pell Grant eligibility expands, the corrections department will be responsible for approving and overseeing new programs. In its oversight role, the department plans to track the progress and outcomes of enrolled students, wrote Maria Bivens, a department spokesperson, in an email. 

The department will need to assess whether the prison education programs have faculty with “substantially similar” credentials to those teaching other programs on campus; whether students can generally continue their education at the university upon release; and whether the provided academic and career advising is largely comparable to that offered on campus.

So far, several community colleges and universities have expressed interest in offering associate’s or bachelor’s degrees, Bivens said, though she did not identify the institutions.

Interested universities may face another hurdle: cost. Pell Grants often do not fully cover tuition at four-year universities, and incarcerated people in Pennsylvania are ineligible for state financial aid. To offer accessible programs, these universities will likely need to figure out how to afford them. At Pitt, where in-state tuition totaled $19,760 this academic year, Pell funds alone would leave a gap of $12,865 per student.

The Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania, which offers a certificate program at SCI Muncy and Mahanoy through Second Chance Pell, is facing a similar challenge. 

“Our tuition is set where it is, and we’ll have to find a way to close that gap if we are going to continue to run this program,” said James Brown, dean of Commonwealth’s College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. “Ideally, it’s my hope that the lawmakers and the decision-makers in Pennsylvania will see that this is a worthwhile investment.”

In May, the spokesperson with Pennsylvania’s corrections department said that it’s “still working through how the PA DOC can support the policy change that will allow incarcerated individuals to receive state funding.” As of last April, two states have repealed statewide bans on financial aid.

Providing a ‘lifeline’

Meloney, at Villanova, is hopeful that the expansion will allow the university to grow its course offerings and serve more students. Villanova has offered college inside since 1972, having managed to fund its programs after the crime bill’s passage. In the last 50 years, about 100 students have graduated from the university with a certificate or bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. 

Larry Stromberg, who’s incarcerated at SCI Phoenix, hopes to join the alumni network. He’s wanted to enroll in the program for years, but as of mid-May, he hadn’t yet passed the university’s entrance exam. In the meantime, Stromberg, 57, enrolled in a certificate program in theological education and completed a course at Temple University. 

Education provides people in prison with a lifeline and vision for the future, Stromberg said. Now, thousands of people in the state like him await greater access.

“I have a fighting spirit,” Stromberg said. “I want to get in Villanova. Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity, and I’ll pass the test.” 

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.