Feds expand Pell Grant program for prisoners working on college degrees

N.M. program is seeing its first graduates

By: - September 2, 2021 5:30 am

James Ruiz completed an associate’s degree under the Second Chance Pell Grant program. He got a certificate at the Southern New Mexico prison in Las Cruces on Tuesday, Aug. 31, and his diploma is in the mail. He plans to pursue his bachelor’s degree next. (Photo by Alex Hallwyler, supervisor of education for the prison)

WASHINGTON — Prison inmates around the U.S. are getting the chance to do something that was almost unheard of a generation ago: pursue a college degree while behind bars and with financial support from the federal government.

Inmates in 42 states, including New Mexico, as well as in Washington, D.C., have more access to federal grants to work with colleges and universities to earn trade certifications, associate’s degrees and even bachelor’s degrees. 

College in New Mexico prisons

By Marisa Demarco

People in N.M. prisons have been able to use Second Chance Pell Grants since 2020 to take college courses, said Eric Harrison, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections.

James Ruiz and Randall Jobe are the first graduates, receiving certificates on Tuesday, Aug. 31, at the prison in Las Cruces. Their diplomas from Ashland University are in the mail, Harrison said. They graduated with associate’s degrees in General Studies, and both plan to pursue their bachelor’s in Applied Communications through the college, he said. 

Until now, the Second Chance Pell Grant program was a limited opportunity in the state’s prison system. The federal expansion of the program means many more New Mexicans will be eligible to participate. 

N.M. Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero said in a written statement that the state is thrilled to see the expansion of the Second Chance Pell Grants program. “We hope to broaden our reach in New Mexico to allow more justice-involved individuals to pursue a college degree, as we know the crucial role education plays in success upon release from incarceration.”

Harrison said the Corrections Department is hoping to work with other colleges — it’s a matter of brokering those relationships. Officials would develop plans with local institutions of higher ed, like the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and New Mexico Highlands. This would mean having local advisers, he added, which could really help students as they work their way through classes. The Re-Entry Division within the state’s prisons system is leading the effort.

Today, only two of the state’s 11 prisons participate in the Second Chance Pell Grant program: the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility in Las Cruces and the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe. Harrison said more prisons could be options, depending on the custody level at the prison — and individual interest. With more local colleges involved, he said, interest might spike.

Randall Jobe is graduating with an associate’s degree from Ashland University. (Photo by Alex Hallwyler, supervisor of education for the prison)

Number of people enrolled so far:

Penitentiary of New Mexico

In 2020, there were 15 people making use of the Pell Grant in the spring, 29 in the summer and 17 in the fall. But 2021 saw a slight decline, with 10 in the spring and 20 in the summer.

Southern New Mexico

In 2020, this Las Cruces prison had nine people enrolled in Ashland University in the spring, 13 in the summer and 11 in the fall. Those numbers went up a little in 2021, with 14 in the spring and 22 in the summer.

—Info comes from the state’s Corrections Department

And the programs are expected to become even more popular, thanks to a bipartisan effort to let prisoners use federal Pell Grants to help pay for higher education classes while incarcerated. A grant expansion announced by the Biden administration — following another by the Trump administration — will bring the number of participating colleges and universities up to 200.

Todd Butler, the dean of arts and sciences at Jackson College in Michigan, says many prison officials, from wardens to guards, were skeptical when he first started teaching prisoners in 2012.

“Corrections departments are set up for one thing, and that’s safety. That’s what they’re designed to do. [College classes] are not what they’re designed to do,” he says. “But the longer you work at a facility, the staff starts to see a change in the inmates.”

“Once you start a higher education program in a prison, the students in that program become scholars. They begin behaving differently. They see a future for themselves that they’ve never imagined before. It changes things,” Butler says. “We watch folks slowly become believers in the system.”

Pell Grants are awarded to college students on the basis of need and, unlike loans, do not have to be repaid. The maximum award for Pell Grants for all college students is $6,495 for the 2021-2022 award year. 

Shift in crime policy

That Second Chance Pell Grants are now growing under President Joe Biden is a remarkable turnaround, considering that in 1994 it was Biden’s signature crime bill that blocked prisoners from getting Pell Grants in the first place. 

But it reflects a major shift in criminal justice policy over the last decade, as both liberals and conservatives have questioned get-tough policies on crime and have instead pushed measures to help inmates get ready for productive lives once they leave prison. 

The issue resonates with policymakers from all political backgrounds, says Margaret diZerega, the director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, which is providing technical assistance to help with the rollout of Second Chance Pell programs. 

“Access to post-secondary education in prison reduces recidivism rates, and people who participate in these programs are 48 percent less likely to return to prison,” she says. 

“Most jobs require post-secondary education. Given that 95 percent of people are going to be returning to our community from prison, these kinds of programs set them up to be able to pursue employment and be able to provide for themselves and their families,” diZerega adds.

More than 22,000 inmates have participated in Second Chance Pell programs since 2016, and some 7,000 of them have earned a professional certificate or academic degree. It’s not known how many of the participants continued their studies after they left prison.

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 with 48 percent of higher education students overall.

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

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Daniel C. Vock
Daniel C. Vock

Daniel C. Vock is a correspondent for the States Newsroom Washington, D.C. Bureau.

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