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Pell Grants For Incarcerated Students Are Coming Soon. But Will Quality Education Follow?

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"When I got into college, that opened my mind to something completely different," said Daniel Whitlow, an inmate and student at California State Prison Los Angeles County in Lancaster. (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. The change had support across the political spectrum. But even advocates have concerns.

"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.

Still, Silbert hopes Pell Grants will provide desperately needed funding for incarcerated students who want to earn a bachelor's degree, and entice more schools to offer degree programs in prison.

Currently, most higher education programs in California prisons don't offer more than an associate degree. 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.

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Studies have shown that prison education programs reduce recidivism and increase job opportunities upon release.

But educators worry that the promise of funding could attract bad actors. They're hoping to work with state leaders and corrections officials to insure that programs offer quality education that leads to a degree.

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