Community Colleges: Limit Role of Corrections Agencies in Prison Pell Grant Expansion

Community college leaders want a longer window before prison officials determine if their programs are in the

Updated September 19, 2022

Edited by Darlene Earnest
Community Colleges: Limit Role of Corrections Agencies in Prison Pell Grant Expansion
Higher Ed Policy
Photo by Carolyn Van Houten / The Washington Post / Getty Images

  • Students who are incarcerated nationwide will have access to Pell Grants in July 2023.
  • Department of Education officials are currently crafting rules and regulations around the Pell Grant expansion.
  • The proposed rules call for oversight entities like state corrections agencies to review whether prison education programs are in students' "best interest" two years after initial approval.
  • Some educators say colleges need more time to get meaningful data on the effectiveness of prison education programs.

Community college leaders want the Department of Education to limit the role of state correctional agencies in deciding whether educational programs are in the "best interest" of students ahead of a nationwide Pell Grant expansion next year.

Students who are incarcerated will have nationwide access to Pell Grants starting in July 2023, a policy that was eliminated in 1994 but brought back by President Joe Biden's administration. That effort is set to open up access to higher education for incarcerated students, but some higher education advocates are concerned about the role prisons will play in authorizing educational programs.

According to the Department of Education's notice of proposed rulemaking for the Pell Grant expansion, "oversight entities" like state and federal corrections agencies will decide whether a program is in the best interest of incarcerated students.

Those oversight entities will decide if a program is in the best interest of incarcerated students two years after the program's initial approval based on the rate of incarcerated students continuing their education after release, job placement rates, earnings, and other criteria, according to the Department of Education's proposed rules.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) is pushing back on the role oversight entities are set to play in approving prisoner education programs. In formal comments on the proposed rulemaking, the AACC wrote that the two-year window for determining if a program is in students' best interest should be extended to four years.

Students who are incarcerated will have nationwide access to Pell Grants starting in July 2023, a policy that was eliminated in 1994 but brought back by President Joe Biden's administration.

The AACC also took issue with the Department of Education requiring certain criteria that oversight entities must consider in determining whether a program is in students' best interest, when Pell Grant expansion established in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 said only that oversight entities "may" consider various criteria in making the assessment.

Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the AACC, said new prison education programs need more time to develop than just two years.

"It's not an off-the-shelf kind of thing," Parham said in an interview. "We have the curriculum, but connecting all of the parts and pieces between the prison system and the community colleges will take time."

Parham said prison education programs likely won't have meaningful data within just two years.

"We're not going to get good data for the first couple of years, which is true of most programs, not just this one in particular," she said.

The AACC comments also note that oversight entities have an important role in regulating prison education programs.

"Oversight entities should play — and in most places already do play — an essential role in

approving prison education programs," according to the AACC's comments. "They will continue to determine which program or programs best suit a given population in a particular setting, though this is ideally, and usually, done in collaboration with college officials."

The Pell Grant expansion will allow students who are incarcerated to be eligible for the critical financial assistance across the United States for the first time since 1994, and comes as colleges and education officials look to reach out to both currently and formerly incarcerated students.

The Department of Education earlier this year expanded the Second Chance Pell Experiment, which allows people who are incarcerated to gain credentials via partnerships between schools and prisons with access to Pell Grants.

Parham said she expects the Pell Grant expansion to boost access to higher education for people who are incarcerated.

"We have to provide for people while they are incarcerated," Parham said, "It's just a great way to invest in them in a way that has a positive impact."