Incarcerated Californians Can Soon Get Federal Aid For College. But Students Beware

Cal State LA English professor Bidhan Roy, teaches a class at the state prison in Lancaster in 2016. (J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA)

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Incarcerated Californians will soon be able to apply for federal Pell Grants to pay for higher education, a move with support across the political spectrum. The change was tucked into the omnibus spending bill signed into law in late December.

Pell Grants, which are the largest source of federally-funded college aid, have been off limits to incarcerated students since 1994, part of the crime bill that also led to mass incarceration.

The change is "incredibly exciting," said Keramet Reiter, who directs a new UC Irvine program that will offer the University of California's first bachelor's degree for incarcerated students. She started teaching in prisons in the late 1990s, when the end of Pell Grants led to a drastic decline in higher education offerings for incarcerated people.

Studies have shown that prison education programs reduce recidivism and increase job opportunities upon release. But they're expensive to run and beyond the reach of most incarcerated people.

"There are so many people in prison who just don't have the resources to even order books or participate in a correspondence course," Reiter said.

Despite Reiter's support for expanding Pell Grants to people behind bars, she and other prison education advocates have concerns: They fear it'll attract a flood of low-quality programs. And incarcerated students, who have very limited access to information other than word-of-mouth, may have trouble separating the good from the bad.

"It has all the ingredients for students to be taken advantage of," said Rebecca Silbert, director of Rising Scholars, a network of California community colleges that provide prison education programs.

Silbert is, nonetheless, hopeful that Pell Grants will provide desperately needed funding for incarcerated students who want to earn a bachelor's degree.

ASSOCIATE DEGREES ABOUND, B.A.'s ARE SCARCE

In recent years, around 10% of California's incarcerated population has been enrolled in college courses, according to Brant Choate, who directs the division of rehabilitative programs at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

More than 2,000 people in the state prison system have associate degrees — and many have multiple degrees, Choate said. This is largely because there's been a huge expansion in community college offerings at California prisons since 2014, when a state law allowed those schools to offer in-person courses at prisons and receive full funding for enrolling incarcerated students.

People incarcerated in all 35 state prisons can now earn their associate degree from a California community college. But few can continue their education beyond that.

"So the opportunity for a bachelor's degree program is really where I see the benefit of the new federal Pell," Choate said.

THE FUNDING PUZZLE

Clifton Gibson, who spent 25 years behind bars, starting at age 17, is one of a small number of students able to start earning his bachelor's degree behind bars, from Cal State Los Angeles. He was later released and graduated last year with a degree in communication.

Gibson, who now works for the criminal justice reform group Initiate Justice, hopes the expansion of Pell Grants will open up similar opportunities for more incarcerated Californians.

"The amount of personal growth that education brings I think is the foundational base for people being healthy and happy community members," Gibson said. "And that right there is going to make a difference in so many people's lives," he said, well beyond those actually taking courses.

Until recently, Cal State LA was the only public institution to offer a bachelor's degree program in California prisons. Now, UC Irvine and Cal State Sacramento are launching programs, as well as Pitzer College, which is private.

Cal State LA's prison education program is partially funded by Second Chance Pell, a pilot program started under the Obama administration and expanded under President Trump's former secretary of education Betsy DeVos.

Taffany Lim, who runs the Cal State LA program, said Pell Grants cover a portion of their costs, but not nearly enough to pay for the huge amount of infrastructure needed to make the program successful. Besides professors and class materials, Lim said, running a bachelor's degree program requires support from the admissions, financial aid, and registrar's office, along with constant communication with the Department of Corrections.

The Cal State program also supports students who transition onto campus after being released from prison. "We would not be able to do it on just Pell funding alone," Lim said. "It's not enough."

To even be eligible for Pell Grant funding, incarcerated students — like all students — have to complete the daunting task of applying for financial aid. Filling out the Free Application For Federal Student Aid requires access to financial and personal documents that many incarcerated people don't have. And incarcerated applicants usually have to fill out the six-page form by hand rather than online.

The application hurdle "is one of the huge reasons we don't draw down as much money as we could from Pell," Lim said.

Still, she hopes the promise of Pell Grants will entice other colleges and universities to launch bachelor's degree programs. "We can't meet the demand by ourselves," she said. "We need other colleges and universities to step up and help us with the load."

Cal State LA was the state's first public institution to offer a bachelor's degree program in prison. Now, several other schools are launching face-to-face programs. (J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA)

PROTECTING AGAINST BAD ACTORS

Prison education advocates hope that when other schools do step up, incarcerated students will have quality options and the tools to decipher which programs are likely to result in a useful and timely degree.

Students can access Pell Grants for a maximum of six years. Jody Lewen, founder of the Prison University Project (now Mount Tamalpais College) at San Quentin State Prison, worries that incarcerated students will enroll in dead-end programs and deplete their Pell Grant eligibility before they get a degree.

Currently, Lewen said, "there are no quality standards at all" for prison education programs. Schools that offer such programs do have to be accredited, but that doesn't mean a particular program offered by the school is worthwhile, Lewen said.

"Accreditors will look at what's happening at the main campus, but no one looks behind the shed."

Lewen thinks the expansion of California community college programs into prisons has foreshadowed what could happen with the expansion of Pell Grants: the promise of funding fueled an explosion of programs, but quality varies greatly.

Despite good intentions, Lewen said, some community college prison programs are poorly designed and understaffed. "Many of those programs were driven by headcount," she said, noting that community colleges are "under enormous pressure" to enroll students in order to maintain or increase funding.

Lewen and other prison educators also noted that the expansion of Pell Grants for prison education was approved by a federal administration that has loosened quality regulations on for-profit colleges.

One private university has come under scrutiny for the quality and student outcomes of its prison education programs. The school, Ashland University, has used Second Chance Pell funding to rapidly expand its tablet-based college program to more than 100 jails and prisons in 13 states, according to The Marshall Project.

In that expansion, Lewen sees a cautionary tale. "My darkest fear is that we've been extremely naive," Lewen said of advocates who pushed for federal funding for prison education, and that "what's really going on is that the online, for-profit education community has created this invisible tail wind."

Choate, from the state Department of Corrections, said the prison system has measures to make sure colleges don't take advantage of incarcerated students, including an office of correctional education, and assigned college coordinators at each prison's adult school.

Incarcerated people can get time off their sentence for earning a degree behind bars, which Choate said creates an incentive for prison authorities to ensure quality education standards.

"We don't want to create a situation where you can essentially pay a college for a degree and get time off your sentence," Choate said. "We want the student to actually do the work."

Still, prison education advocates in California and nationwide are strategizing additional quality control measures, which could include legislation and working with prison authorities to set up further screening standards.

Gibson, the formerly incarcerated Cal State LA graduate, said he hopes incarcerated people will have access to approved lists of reputable colleges offering classes that are transferable when a student exits prison.

"Let's make sure that our second go-around with Pell Grants, that we do it correctly," he said, "that folks are going to be able to get the most out of it and not feel like they've been duped or that they wasted their time."