Pell Grant Eligibility Extended to Cal Poly Humboldt Prison Education Program

Cal Poly Humboldt's prison education program is the first to be approved by the Department of Education for federal Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students.
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Published on February 7, 2024
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  • Students enrolled in the Cal Poly Humboldt Prison Education Program will be able to pay for the program through federal Pell Grants starting this fall.
  • Pell Grants give students money for college that does not need to be repaid.
  • Cal Poly Humboldt's program is the first in the country to be approved for eligibility by the U.S. Department of Education.

California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt's prison education program is the first in the country to be approved for federal Pell Grant funding, making affordable education more accessible to incarcerated students.

Pell Grants are income-based awards for undergraduates with exceptional financial need. However, they do not need to be repaid. Previously, incarcerated students weren't eligible for Pell Grants, outside of limited pilot programs, requiring them to pay for their education out of pocket.

Students enrolled in Cal Poly Humboldt's bachelor of arts in communication program offered at Pelican Bay State Prison will be able to use Pell Grant funding starting this fall. The changes are a direct result of the FAFSA Simplification Act, which took effect in July 2023.

Tony Wallin-Sato, a lecturer in the Critical Race, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department at Cal Poly Humboldt, told BestColleges that extending Pell eligibility to incarcerated students helps expel the myth that incarcerated people don't deserve an education.

[At] a humanity level, at a compassionate level, just because you're incarcerated doesn't mean you get to take away the right to get educated, he said. Incarcerated individuals ... belong in the classroom. They do deserve an education.

Wallin-Sato also serves as the program director for Project Rebound, an organization that supports reintegrating formerly incarcerated individuals who want to enroll and graduate from one of the schools in the California State University system. The organization played a major role in designing a bachelor's degree program for incarcerated students at Pelican Bay State Prison.

The degree program is a collaboration between Cal Poly Humboldt, College of the Redwoods, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. It is one of the first bachelor's programs taught in person at a high-security Level IV yard in California.

Wallin-Sato said that it took almost 2.5 years to create, with the first cohort of students starting in January 2024.

If you're going to support us when we're out and changing our path and diving into school and education in different career and personal paths, the same sentiment should go to those who are still currently incarcerated, he said.

The Department of Education estimates that about 760,000 additional individuals will become eligible for a Pell Grant through prison education programs once institutions have fully developed their prison programs.

While Cal Poly Humboldt is the first university to have its prison education programs approved by the Department of Education, it certainly won't be the last.

Access to these Pell Grants will give people who are incarcerated an opportunity to create a new vision and future for themselves by acquiring the knowledge, skills, and abilities to thrive and build better lives, Amy Loyd, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education, said in a statement.

We know that Cal Poly Humboldt is the first of many schools that will be leveraging this important funding stream to provide college in prison.