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

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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:

  • Student loan default is not just an educational access issue for incarcerated students, it’s a “massive reentry issue.” This week we look at some of the ongoing informational and logistical challenges as well as possible solutions to dealing with student loan debt from prison.
  • Registration is now open for the virtual 2023 Rise Up Conference held next week on Sept. 6-8.
  • The National Conference for Higher Education in Prison is hosting a creative competition around the theme of “Close the Distance.” The deadline is Sept. 30.
  • Check out our FAQ about the new rules for Pell Grants, which were restored in July. Please share with your incarcerated students!
  • ICYMI: Read more about how an employment readiness program at San Quentin is working with Bay Area employers to help prepare them to navigate the job market.

Student loan debt is a “massive reentry issue”

With only two weeks before she had to report to federal prison in 2019, Ashley Furst scrambled to get her affairs in order. Top of the list: what to do about the nearly $50K in student loan debt she had taken on to earn her master’s degree?

Furst called her loan provider. She learned that forbearance — a temporary suspension of payments — was her only option. But, interest would continue accruing. Her life was about to be put on hold. Her balance would continue to grow.

That number didn’t tick up quite as quickly as it could have. In March 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the world, the government suspended both interest and payments for most student loan borrowers, including Furst.

The payment pause gave her some breathing room when she was released in 2021. “The fact that I did not have student loan payments for the first couple of years I was back was huge for me,” she said. “I have had to completely rebuild my life from scratch.”

And she has. After working her way through a few entry-level positions, she was recently hired as the marketing director for Breakthrough, a Denver-based nonprofit focused on job readiness, entrepreneurship, and reentry.

Furst recognizes that with a graduate degree and a well-paying job, she’s in a different position than many formerly incarcerated borrowers. That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Her hopes of receiving some student debt relief were dashed in June when the Supreme Court struck down President Biden’s proposal to cancel up to $20,000 for some borrowers.

Furst is considering getting a part-time job to help pay down her debt, especially as both interest and payments will resume in the coming weeks. Before she was incarcerated, she was paying $750 a month, which barely made a dent in her balance even after four years of payments. When she first got out, “that payment amount would have been a whole paycheck for me.”

She’s hoping that the new income-driven SAVE plan — which increases the number of people who will pay $0 a month and stops any monthly interest not covered by the borrower’s payment — will help lower her monthly amount.

Furst also has to pay 15% of her net income in restitution. “A lot of people when they reenter society, not only do they have trouble finding a job that pays a living wage, but they have fines and fees that they have to pay,” she said.

Managing loans before, during and after incarceration

Furst’s story illustrates the importance of figuring out ways to help people in prison manage their loans before, during, and after prison. “I was very lucky that I had two weeks to prepare, but the vast majority of people get taken away right at sentencing,” she said.

Currently, most borrowers entering prison end up going into default because they are unable to make payments or even contact their servicer about available options. In fact, a recent analysis from the Student Borrower Protection Center found that nearly 100% of incarcerated student loan borrowers were in default.

That’s an issue that Ryan Moser and I reported on last year, when the Education Department launched Fresh Start, a program that allows defaulted borrowers to bring their loans into good standing. Getting out of default restores Pell Grant eligibility and the default is removed from credit reports.

There are a few ways to enroll in Fresh Start, including filling out a FAFSA and enrolling in a Pell-eligible prison education program, entering into an income-driven repayment plan, or contacting the Education Department online, via phone, or by USPS.

Fresh Start has been an important tool for getting incarcerated students out of default quickly so they can access financial aid, but it’s a temporary fix. Borrowers can only take advantage of it once, so they also have to stay on top of managing their loans to avoid going into default again. And, while colleges have been able to use it to help many of their students access Pell Grants, it’s been difficult to get information about the program to people who are at facilities that don’t have college programs.

Fresh Start expires next year on Oct 1, 2024. So what happens then? And what can be done to continue to address student loan default and the ongoing informational and logistical barriers that exist for formerly and currently incarcerated borrowers?

Last week, Ryan and I were invited to be on a panel organized by Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network hoping to answer some of those questions. We were joined by Sheila Meiman, prison education specialist at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators; Persis Yu, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center; and Aaron Smith, cofounder of Savi.

Meiman framed student loan default as “a massive reentry issue” beyond just educational access. She highlighted how debt impacts credit scores, which in turn impacts access to housing, transportation, and more. She emphasized the need to “tenaciously” pursue solutions while people are incarcerated, not after release, so they are in a better position to reenter society.

The need for information sooner, rather than later

This is an issue that affects not only prospective students but also anyone with student debt. And it’s not just about getting people out of default, it’s about finding ways to prevent people from defaulting in the first place.

While things like Fresh Start can help, “even programs that are specifically designed for incarcerated folks are not communicated to the borrowers who could benefit from them,” as Yu put it. For example, the Education Department has another process for people with sentences of 10 years or more to have their loan balances written off by the government. That stops loan servicers from trying to collect, although it doesn’t restore eligibility for federal financial aid, which can be a problem if someone wants to continue their education. As a result, it may not be the best option for everybody. But many people don’t even know the program exists, Yu said.

Yu said that people like public defenders who work with people at the beginning of their incarceration need to know more about this issue. “There’s so much they have to do, and this is one more thing, but I think it really is [critical to get] this information to people right when they start their sentence,” Yu said.

Similarly, reentry counselors need more education about student loans as they work with folks in the months leading up to their release.

Furst saw firsthand how that could work. Before she was went to prison, she did a presentence report with her pretrial probation officer that went through her work history and financial debts. “They knew I had student loans,” she said. “Why can’t there be someone to facilitate the process for someone who’s going to be incarcerated when you have your first intake meeting? If you have student loans, make that an action item.”

How to request “Fresh Start” via mail:

Write to P.O. Box 5609, Greenville, TX 75403. The Education Department suggests including your name, social security number, date of birth, mailing address, and the following: “I would like to use Fresh Start to bring my loans back into good standing.”

The National Consumer Law Center also advises incarcerated borrowers to note that they are incarcerated in their communication with the Education Department since the department doesn’t have that information on file.

Related coverage:

++ “One route to a ‘fresh start’ on student debt.”
++ “Student loan defaults are a big barrier to prison education. The government is offering new help.”
++ You can’t contact Federal Student Aid because you can’t call 1-800 numbers in prison.
++ When mass incarceration and student debt intersect.

Does virtual reality offer new possibilities for career training in prison?

College Inside contributor Ryan Moser testing a virtual reality headset during SxSWEdu in March. Transfr, a tech firm out of New York, is piloting the technology in correctional settings to provide training in fields such as auto mechanics and aviation. Photo: Charlotte West/Open Campus.

Imagine sitting in a prison classroom and changing the oil in a Dodge Charger – virtually. Transfr, a tech firm out of New York focused on workforce development, offers a training program that uses virtual reality goggles and handsets to simulate on-the-job experience in fields like aviation, diesel mechanics, and construction.

Originally using its devices for high school and community college students, Transfr has been exploring opportunities in other contexts such as correctional settings. Using the goggles could help incarcerated people explore careers and prepare for industry certifications. It allows users to gain familiarity with equipment that would otherwise be difficult to access inside of prison.

Ryan Moser and I tested a simulation with Transfr CEO Bharani Rajakumar this spring at SXSW EDU in Austin, entertaining people in the Marriott lobby as we waved around wildly. Ryan said he was amazed at the crisp visuals, the hand motion realism, and the overall experience of feeling of actually being inside a garage, turning wrenches and picking up safety glasses. (Ryan did a much better job at the simulation than I did. My general takeaway was that I had no desire to ever try and do an oil change, real or virtual).

So how are prisons using virtual reality? What are the potential benefits and limitations to introducing VR technology into prison classrooms? If you have been using VR technology for job training inside, we want to hear from you. Please email me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org.

Let’s connect

Please get in touch 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 or on TwitterLinkedIn, or Instagram.

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