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California Plans More Degree Options As Feds Announce Reinstatement Of Pell Grants For Incarcerated Students

Clad in black caps and gowns atop their blue prison uniforms, male students congratulate each other as they walk back to their seats.
Students at Lancaster state prison congratulate each other during a 2021 graduation ceremony.
(Julia Barajas
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The U.S. Department of Education is getting ready to lift the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students, in a move that could increase access to college education in federal and state prisons.

Pell Grants are a form of need-based federal financial aid that doesn't have to be paid back. In 1994, incarcerated people were barred from receiving this type of aid. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of prison education programs shrank from 772 in the early '90s to eight in 1997.

The Obama Administration began rolling back that prohibition in 2016 by establishing the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which made 12,000 students in state and federal prisons eligible for financial aid. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have further expanded access to Pell Grants for incarcerated people.

The department plans to lift the ban in July 2023.

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The credits that students in prison earn will have to be transferable to at least one higher education institution, either a public or private nonprofit college or university.

At the same time, California leaders are working to expand the number of degree options for those in prison. Shannon Swain, superintendent for the state’s Office of Correctional Education, said there are 15,000 students in the California prison system, and most of them are earning associate’s degrees.

"My vision for higher correctional education is that we'll be able to provide any security level and any gender of incarcerated individual with an opportunity to pursue that Bachelor of Arts degree," Swain said.

The state already has partnerships with five universities that provide bachelor’s degrees, including: California State University, Los Angeles; Fresno State; Pitzer College; Sacramento State; and UC Irvine.

Taffany Lim, who runs CSU Los Angeles' partnership with the Lancaster state prison, noted that Pell Grant funding alone is not enough to cover the costs. However, she added, "it helps us in attracting additional money to support the program."

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