Feds expand Pell Grant program for prisoners working on college degrees in Pa., other states

The program also attracts support from people concerned about racial inequities, because more than a third of students in Second Chance Pell Programs are Black, compared to just 13 percent on college campuses.

Overall, 59 percent of Second Chance Pell students say they are not white, compared to 48 percent of higher education students overall.

At the same time, though, only 11 percent of Second Chance Pell students say they are Hispanic, compared to 20 percent on traditional campuses. And white students still make up a higher percentage of students taking Pell-supported classes (41 percent) than their overall prison population (31 percent) would suggest.

A Michigan success story

Jackson College is a long-time community college that recently expanded its mission to include four-year programs. Before the 1994 ban on Pell Grants for prisoners, it had a sizable prison-based program.

It started offering classes in state prisons again a decade ago at the request of the state’s corrections department.

Those first classes, though, had to be paid for by prisoners and their families, a major barrier to enrollment. Butler and his team talked to 450 potential students, but only enrolled 17 in their first class.

Still, the program attracted money from philanthropies that paid for inmates’ tuition, and the program began to grow.

When the Obama administration mulled an experimental program to extend Pell Grants to prisoners, getting around the 1994 ban, people involved in the program at Jackson College met with then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other Obama administration officials.

Eventually, Jackson College became one of the first to participate in the experiment, in 2016.

The Trump administration doubled the number of institutions that could participate in the program under then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. And President Donald Trump signed a law that included an overhaul of the federal aid application process and the removal of the 1994 ban.

The Biden administration is now in charge of writing rules for the Pell Grants once the ban is lifted. Those rules are expected to go into effect in July 2023.

COVID-19 hits prisons

Enrollment in Jackson College’s prison-based programs reached as high as 800 before the COVID-19 pandemic. Classes were taught at eight Michigan prisons, including a federal prison.

The pandemic hit prisons hard, and inevitably that led to disruptions in the college instruction programs too. Many of Jackson College’s students were paroled early to reduce crowding in the facilities.

Meanwhile, visitors were severely curtailed, and college instructors could no longer meet with their students in person. Instead, teachers had to prepare video recordings or lecture via closed-circuit TV, because students were not allowed to take the classes online.

The lack of in-person meetings also meant that the college couldn’t recruit new students, and enrollment has since dipped to around 500 students, Butler says.

But prison officials helped keep the program running even with the difficulties.

“Our corrections partners were saying: ‘It is extremely important that we keep this education program, because [the prisoners] needed it. They need some hope. They need to keep busy. They need to keep progressing.’ We heard that, and we agreed with that,” Butler recalls.

Remote learning

The pandemic forced Jackson College and Michigan prisons to increase their reliance on technology, which has become a source of some controversy in other locations.

Ashland University, a Christian college in Ohio, in particular, has drawn scrutiny for offering courses almost exclusively on tablets, raising questions about the quality of its instruction.

It has become one of the biggest providers of courses under Second Chance Pell, with operations in 13 states, according to the Marshall Project. A spokesperson from Ashland University did not return a request for comment.

But for Jackson College, Butler says, technology can be as much a barrier to students learning as a tool, especially when there are no college staff to help inmates use their computers and programs.

Ideally, Butler adds, inmates would be able to get in-person instruction but also be able to use online resources for research with their projects.

Still, Butler says he’s encouraged by the prison-based courses.

“For many of us, this is the most rewarding work of our lives. It is completely unlike any other place you will teach,” he says. “Anyone who has ever watched or taken part in a prison graduation ceremony will leave rethinking what is possible for the incarcerated population.”

Daniel C. Vock is a national correspondent for States Newsroom, which supports the . Capital-Star Editor John L. Micek contributed additional reporting. 

Originally published at www.penncapital-star.com,by Daniel C. Vock

Comments are closed.