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Education has been Sheron Edwards’ escape during his more than 20 years in state and federal prison. He’s earned certifications from three college programs, taught GED and English as a second language classes, written an autobiography, and become a personal trainer.
“It made me feel amazing … to start learning and become a scholar because I think it's a lifelong journey,” Edwards told me by phone from Chickasaw County Regional Correctional Facility in Mississippi, where he’s incarcerated for armed robbery.
For all of the accomplishments Edwards has racked up, one has eluded him so far: A college degree. He could be on his way soon, however, thanks to a recent change in federal law. As of July 1, most people in prisons — though not in jails or detention centers — are now eligible to receive Pell Grant student aid, for the first time in nearly 30 years. The Associated Press reports that the change will give an additional 30,000 students behind bars access to some $130 million in financial aid per year. In all, 760,000 incarcerated people could be newly eligible for aid according to the Department of Education, though many prisons don’t yet have capacity or higher education partners.
These need-based federal grants have long been an important tool for low-income people seeking higher education, and people behind bars are disproportionately from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. According to the non-profit Higher Education in Prison Research, college education had been common in prisons until the 1994 Crime Bill excluded incarcerated people from Pell Grant eligibility. Without those funds to prop up college courses, nearly all the programs closed.
In 2015, the Obama Administration launched a pilot program to restart Pell eligibility in 141 correctional facilities across the nation, a number that’s since grown to over 200. Congress quietly ditched the ban in 2020, and federal officials began preparing for the floodgates to re-open.
Assistant Attorney General Amy Solomon, who also worked in the Department of Justice in 2015 when the pilot program was rolled out, told The Marshall Project that it was “almost unimaginable that, less than a decade later, every college in America would be called upon to play a role in helping incarcerated students succeed.”
The programs are designed and run by colleges and universities, mostly taught in-person, and have to meet certain rules to qualify — for example, courses must be comparable to what would be offered on campus.
Recent reporting from three states highlights both the challenges and opportunities that Pell restoration presents. The Oregonian reports that while there’s hope among prison education advocates that Pell funding will incentivize schools to offer programs, “only a handful of Oregon’s colleges and one university” plan to go through the approval process, and that the start of new programs in the state’s prisons is likely many months away.
In Pennsylvania, Public Source reporter Emma Folts notes that Pell Grants — which max out at a little below $7,400 a year — are not enough to cover even half a full year of college tuition. For example, at the University of Pittsburgh, in-state, full-time tuition costs $19,760 for the 2022-2023 school year.
While some programs have required payment from incarcerated people or their families, even a small contribution from incarcerated students themselves is difficult at the paltry wages prison jobs typically pay. According to Ruth Delaney from the Vera Institute, a criminal justice reform non-profit engaged in education access behind bars, schools typically seek outside scholarships and institutional funding to make up the difference if Pell Grants alone don’t cover tuition. A number of colleges and universities — most famously Bard College — have also launched prison-based programs that do not rely on public funding at all.
In Massachusetts, WGBH reports that prison officials themselves are one of the largest impediments to the rollout of college programming. “There’s just this cultural sort of opposition to more education,” state Sen. Jamie Eldridge told the station. “When colleges have tried to expand in some of our prisons, they’re just either met with silence or opposition.”
Being incarcerated also complicates almost every step of the educational process, from a lack of computers and internet access to the possibility of sudden prison transfers throwing students off track, academically.
If college programs can overcome these financial and bureaucratic obstacles to get into more prisons, advocates are confident that it will have a positive impact both on the students themselves, and on public safety at large. Research suggests that incarcerated people who take courses in any subject while behind bars have a recidivism rate 43% lower than those who do not. The same study found that for every dollar spent on prison education, the government saves $4 to $5 in reimprisonment costs.
Educational courses, and specifically those that lead to degrees from accredited colleges, also give formerly incarcerated people a leg up in what can be a brutal search for employment after release. As Talmon Smith reported for The New York Times this week, over 60% of those leaving prison are unemployed a year later, even amid near record-low unemployment in the economy at large.
And then there’s the human element. This week, I also spoke with Shelby Manning, who was released from prison in Tennessee two months ago. She told me that when she first went in on drug charges, she thought the idea of college was, frankly, “stupid.” But after about a year, Manning decided to give it a try and enrolled in college courses through the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative.
Now she sees it as part of her recovery, and her path to a future of her own choosing. “If you're going to school, it makes you feel like you're worth something,” Manning told me. “It makes you feel like… you have something good in you.”