Colleges across the country are expecting increased interest in prison education programs following the return of Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated people, which is set for July 2023. With less than a year to go, program leaders are preparing for an influx of enrollees and reconsidering how they serve students who are in prison.
Colleges have both altruistic and financial motivations for expanding their prison education programs, according to Rebecca Villarreal, senior director at Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit focused on workforce and education systems.
“Some institutions have a really clear social justice mission and a commitment to addressing issues of equity. For other institutions, we certainly recognize that enrollment declines are a challenge for colleges and universities. Through these programs, there’s the opportunity to enroll additional students,” Villarreal said.
Under the FAFSA Simplification Act passed at the end of 2020, all incarcerated students will be able to apply for federal Pell Grants for the first time since 1994. With the reinstated Pell program comes new rules for colleges to follow.
Oversight entities will judge whether colleges with prison education programs are acting in students’ best interest. At federal prisons, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons will oversee the outcomes. At state prisons and jails, it will be the state corrections agencies and the municipal governments, respectively.
Success metrics include post-release job placement rates, transferability of credits toward degree programs at other institutions, and availability and quality of academic and career advising services.
Because college leaders can’t check in with incarcerated students as casually as they can with the rest of their student body, they are gearing up for the challenge of tracking progress with limited contact and minimal emails and phone calls, according to Villarreal. Often, that means more staff.
“Folks have asked, like, ‘How many students per staff member should I allocate?’ or, ‘How will I know when I need more people?'” Villarreal said. “There are lots of outstanding questions and they’re each so facility-