The U.S. Department of Education announced plans to expand eligibility for Federal Pell Grants for individuals seeking higher educational opportunities while incarcerated, according to a June 30 press release. This will be in addition to the Second Chance Pell Experiment, which is the current way need-based Pell grants are given to individuals who are incarcerated.
During the 2021-22 year, more than 40,000 students received Pell Grants through the Second Chance Pell Experiment, according to the press release. The department estimated that full reinstatement of the funding would allow another 760,000 individuals to be eligible recipients through prison educational programming once these programs are fully developed.
“Until now students have not had full access to financial aid that would allow them to continue their education beyond community college,” said Alia Cruz, spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, in an email. “With the expansion of Pell Grants, we anticipate more incarcerated students will be able to meet their education and rehabilitative goals.”
Cruz added that there are currently six bachelor’s degree programs that are, or will be, using Pell Grant funding, including Sacramento State University’s services at Folsom State Prison and Mule Creek State Prison. These programs began using Second Chance Pell funding in 2020.
Amy Jamgochian, chief academic officer at Mount Tamalpais College, or MTC, which supports individuals trying to obtain an associate’s degree while incarcerated, highlighted limitations in the existing Pell experiment that restrict its reach. As MTC is funded by donors and institutions, they will not seek Pell funding as of now.
Jamgochian noted that the existing program has limitations both in funding and eligibility requirements. Pell Grants only pay for tuition, and learning materials such as libraries are not necessarily easily accessible for students that are incarcerated. Furthermore, Jamgochian said individuals with student loan defaults, prior drug convictions or an undocumented status are automatically ineligible for receiving Pell Grant funding.
“One of our values is being as accessible and equitable as possible,” Jamgochian said. “ As far as we are concerned, accessibility is the point of higher education in prison.”
Individually, recipients are capped at six years worth of aid in their lifetime, and the per year limit is about $7,000, according to Jamgochian. Jamgochian expressed additional concern about the quality of education offered to students who are incarcerated, considering Pell’s only requirement for education is accreditation.
Beyond this, MTC also does not allocate Pell Grant funding to their students for logistical reasons. Due to the lifetime cap on funding, MTC offers its associate’s degree programs for free so students can still apply for Pell funding later in their educational careers when seeking a bachelor’s degree or another higher level of education.
Jamgochian said allocation of Pell funding would require MTC to add at least one additional salaried position. In fact, the allocation of funds might cost MTC more than they would receive, Jamgochian said.
“There is a symbolic effect. It’s meaningful for people to learn that the federal government has made moves to support education in prison, and that’s not nothing, it is meaningful,” Jamgochian said. “ I see it as a good, even if it is not enough.”