In 1994, Congress adopted a bill authored by then-Senator Joe Biden that banned people in prison from having access to federal Pell Grants. Last month, after 26 years, that ban was finally lifted.

Advocates and practitioners agree, the change is monumental for those in prison. They say much of the credit for the victory goes to formerly incarcerated people — and their organizations, such as the Unlock Higher Ed coalition — who have demonstrated the value of an education and human potential for change.

“I know the benefits of education for those coming out of prison,” said Tracy Andrus, a professor of criminal justice at Wiley College in Texas who was incarcerated in the 1990s. Andrus is also the director of the Lee P. Brown Criminal Justice Institute at Wiley and was the first African American person to earn a Ph.D. in juvenile justice. “I was not fortunate enough to have Second Chance Pell.”

But the effort to expand higher education in prison isn’t over. And the end of the ban has brought on new concerns about low-quality programs, implementation and equity.

Restoration and What Comes After

Before 1994, there were more than 300 postsecondary education programs in American prisons. After the ban, that number dwindled to about a dozen.

Supporters of the ban have argued that people with criminal records shouldn’t have access to federal assistance while people with no convictions go into debt to afford an education. But advocates for higher education in prison have successfully argued that, beyond simple human rights, the practice has its benefits. A 2013 study from the RAND Corporation estimated that prisoners who enrolled in an education program were 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who did not. Other research has suggested higher education programs also help reduce prison violence and make the facilities safer.

“With 95 percent of people eventually leaving prison and returning to our communities, it’s important that we have these opportunities in place for people to build their skills and knowledge while they’re on the inside,” said Margaret diZerega, director of the Center for Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice.

The Vera Institute, a policy and research organization focused on the criminal justice system, has estimated that nearly half a million inmates could be eligible for Pell Grants with the ban lifted.

“We know there’s high demand from incarcerated people for these opportunities, and there’s a ton of interest from corrections and colleges,” diZerega said. “It’s really exciting to think about all of the lives that are going to be benefited when more people in prison have access to postsecondary education.”

The current landscape for funding higher education in prison is diverse. Some programs, like the one Andrus directs at Wiley College, are run with access to Pell through a pilot program, called Second Chance Pell, first launched under the Obama administration. Others charge the students tuition, receive state funding, or court private philanthropy to pay for their programs. Others still cover the cost internally.

Lifting the ban was a top priority for advocates of higher education in prison. With their goal achieved, the field is now turning its focus to ensuring quality in the academic programs approved for federal dollars. There is some thought that students could be exploited by predatory institutions that would use up students’ lifetime Pell eligibility without providing a quality education in return.

“How do we prevent against any behaviors that might take advantage of students and might create a situation where the reinstatement of Pell is of greater benefit to colleges and universities than it is to students?” said Mary Gould, director of the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison. “The thing you don’t want is universities that profit because now there is a whole new set of students with money attached to them, in a moment where colleges and universities are struggling financially.”

While there were low-quality programs in the 1990s, before the ban, there are more now, said Erin Corbett, founder and CEO of the Second Chance Educational Alliance, a postsecondary prison program in Connecticut. “There are more institutions that can be looking at incarcerated students simply as an additional revenue stream and not really caring about providing educational opportunity.”

The legislation already has a few guardrails to protect students against predatory programs. Institutions must be approved to operate in a facility by the state or Bureau of Prisons, which should consider factors such as the job placement, earnings and recidivism rates of those who have continued their education post release. Institutions cannot have been the subject of any suspension or discipline from an accrediting body in the past five years, and credits must transfer over to at least one institution in the state (or, in the case of federal prisons, the state where most inmates are going to live after they’re released). Some of the major targets for these guardrails are for-profit institutions.

But efforts could go further, advocates and practitioners say.

Corbett said one of the first steps is to operationalize quality and develop metrics to evaluate programs. Last year, the Institute for Higher Education Policy made a first attempt at such a project with the development of key performance indicators to evaluate higher education in prison programs.

“The key performance indicators were definitely the first step,” said Corbett, who worked on the project and is involved in other efforts to define quality. “But it is not the end of the conversation.”

Much attention has been paid to Ashland University’s prison education program, especially after an article from the Marshall Project, a news outlet that covers the U.S. criminal justice system, cast doubt on its model of online-only education. The tablet-based program is among the largest serving prisoners in the United States, but critics say it fails its students in its design and doesn’t prepare them for re-entry into society.

“Right now there’s no metric [for quality],” said Satra Taylor, manager of higher education justice initiatives at the Education Trust, “which is why this is such a complicated conversation.”

But efforts at defining quality should come from practitioners in the field, Corbett and Taylor said, not people new to the work.

Other steps to ensure quality in the future could include specific accreditation for college prison programs, said Andrus.

“We want to make sure that we have very rigorous curriculums,” he said. “The same program that we offer at our colleges and universities should be the identical program that we offer to our inmates in prison.” 

Colleges could be asked to provide a certain level of student support services, or access to technology for students, said Gould.

Other measures might look at equity in the prison environment. Institutions operating in prison could be asked to ensure that the makeup of their incarcerated student body matches the demographics of the prison at large. A 2019 study from New America suggested that while Black and Hispanic incarcerated students enroll in college programs as often as their white peers, they complete at lower rates. With Black men in particular overrepresented in the criminal justice system, many see postsecondary prison programs as a racial justice issue.

Corbett said she would like to see more historically Black colleges and universities offer programs in prisons.

“HBCUs are uniquely poised to lead in this work because of their institutional histories” with students in prison, especially during the civil rights era, she said. “The research already demonstrates that when students can see teachers and professors that look like them, their outcomes tend to be better.”

Colleges and universities could also offer more STEM degrees, she said. State and local governments could remove barriers that prevent formerly incarcerated people from getting professional licenses. They could enact “ban the box” legislation that prohibits employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history, Taylor said. They could also create new positions and hire counselors to help inmates navigate the financial aid system.

The stakes for ensuring quality and access are high. While prison education programs are often called a “second chance,” some advocates say most prison inmates never had a first chance at a quality education.

“‘Better than nothing’ is a prevailing philosophy across not just higher education in prison but likely many services provided in prison,” Gould said. “There needs to be a recognition that most people who are in prison have in one way or another in their life been intentionally excluded, marginalized, underserved or provided inadequate access to education.”

With that in mind, practitioners and policy makers should be wary of simply treating postsecondary education as a corrective “dose” that can prevent recidivism, she said. That mind-set leads to barriers in access such as limiting education only to those who are guaranteed to be released from prison.

“In far too many situations, education is seen as part of the ‘rehabilitation process.’ It’s not education with the idea that everyone deserves access to quality education, but that education can do something ‘corrective,’ and that is incredibly problematic,” Gould said. “Recidivism is not an educational outcome.”

Much of the future for higher education in prison has yet to be decided. Though legislation was passed and signed, the ban hasn’t yet fully been lifted. The Department of Education is responsible for doing so before July 1, 2023, but advocates have said they are pushing for it to happen sooner.

“The restoration of Pell is just a piece of what should be a broader plan to remove barriers to access for students impacted by the criminal justice system,” said Taylor. “There is still work to be done.”