Online students and other non-traditional audiences are increasingly an area of focus for institutions nationwide. But there is one large group of non-traditional students that’s been previously excluded: incarcerated students. Beginning July 2023, over 700,000 incarcerated adults will become Pell Grant eligible, enabling qualified students to pursue federally funded college education for the first time since the 1990s. As the US Department of Education described, this change will open doors to postsecondary education and new career opportunities for thousands of prospective adult learners.
While the current educational landscape for incarcerated students may be sparse, this wasn’t always the case. In the early ‘90s, there were more than 770 college and university programs in nearly 1,300 prisons nationwide, all thanks to funding from the Pell Grant.
This came to a halt following the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Act. When this funding ended, only a handful of secondary education programs in federal and state prisons remained. Experts argue this intensified high recidivism rates, economic disparity, and unequal educational attainment between incarcerated people and the general population.
However, prison reform and the drive to expand access to education programs in prisons have been gaining momentum. Thanks to countless justice initiatives and the Second Chance Pell experiment program (2020), the American Department of Education announced all eligible incarcerated students will once again be able to receive Pell Grant funding starting July 1st, 2023. Once funding is restored, a staggering 700,000 incarcerated adults will become eligible for Pell Grants in the 2023-2024 academic year.
Here's what you need to know about the state of higher education as it relates to incarcerated students.
There is strong interest among incarcerated students for educational programing
More than 50% of incarcerated adults try to obtain education via available prison resources while incarcerated, and 79% report interest in education programs. It’s not surprising incarcerated adults would take interest in education, considering incarcerated adults are on average less educated than the general population and earn 41% less at the time of incarceration than non-incarcerated adults of similar ages. However, despite high student interest, a lack of funding for these programs renders many incarcerated students unable to access educational opportunities currently.
Correctional education programs help break the cycles of incarceration and poverty and precipitate societal re-entry
Few opportunities benefit incarcerated people as much as postsecondary education. Incarcerated adults who participate in a correctional education program have a 28% lower chance of recidivating. Further, educational programs ensure incarcerated individuals have the skills and qualifications to be competitive in the job market. The majority of US jobs require some college to a bachelor’s degree. Even for students who do not complete their education while in prison, incarcerated individuals who take academic or vocational college courses are several times more likely to enroll in a state community college upon release than incarcerated people not utilizing available educational resources.
Colleges and universities currently offer successful programs for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated students, providing models for institutions new to this audience
There are many ways for colleges and universities to connect with correctional facilities and offer credential-bearing programming, thanks to the Second Chance Pell and other funding strategies. With the incoming restoration of the Pell Grant for incarcerated students, we anticipate more readily available funding and opportunities for expansion in this space. Here are a few examples you can explore:
a. Ashland University’s Correctional Education Program is the oldest and longest-operating postsecondary correctional education program in the United States. The program serves 5,000 incarcerated students through 11 degree programs in more than 120 facilities. The program is entirely subsidized by funding from the Second Chance Pell Grant, and there are no out-of-pocket expenses for students.
b. Take the Higher Education in Prison program at Portland State University. Portland State University offers a one-year program providing 15 general education credits at a reduced cost to inmates at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. Upon release from prison, students transfer to Portland State University to finish their degree. Remarkably, this was the first higher education degree pathway in the state for incarcerated women. Portland State University also offers support programs to assist formerly incarcerated students and help them transition to the University. Since the program’s creation in 2015, it has enrolled approximately 75 students.
c. Princeton University’s Prison Teaching Initiative offers incarcerated students college-level credit that can be applied toward an associate degree. The program partners with Raritan Valley Community College and Rutgers University to connect faculty with eight New Jersey correctional facilities. The initiative reaches approximately 250 incarcerated students each year.
For individuals impacted by the justice system, offering postsecondary educational opportunities can make all the difference. Aaron T. Kinzel, who teaches criminology and criminal justice courses at University of Michigan-Dearborn and was formerly incarcerated, contends that access to education saved his life. Professor Kinzel says, “I believe that access to educational materials at this time incrementally moved me away from violence, kept me sane, and probably saved my life by marking a turning point.” He views teaching as “an opportunity to give back to my community and give students a real-world perspective how our criminal justice system does and should function.” You can read more of Professor Kinzel’s story here.
Higher ed can serve students like Kinzel and their communities by investing in prison education programs. Considering 650,000 formerly incarcerated people are released from prison each year in the United States, ensuring access to quality education for incarcerated people aligns with the goals of an effective justice system and helps ensure successful re-entry to society.