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New federal rule helps prison inmates pay for college. Here’s how California will benefit

Sacramento Bee - 7/7/2023

In January, Michael Love was released from prison after 35 years. Four months later he returned, but not to serve more time.

Love took the podium at Sacramento State’s first-ever Folsom State Prison commencement ceremony to deliver the valedictorian speech.

“I know that education has been truly transformative in my life,” Love said. “It felt like freedom. Freedom to think critically, freedom to assess knowledge and freedom to discuss even opposing views.”

Love could afford tuition because Sacramento State was part of the Second Chance Pell Experiment, a pilot program aiming to expand college access to people in prison. But until this month, most incarcerated individuals were barred from receiving Pell grants, the federal grants given to low-income students with demonstrated financial need.

A new federal policy kicked in July 1 that allows incarcerated students to receive Pell grants to pay for college courses, making it easier to pay for and attain a college degree from inside prison walls.

Sacramento State is one of five California universities offering bachelor’s degree programs across eight state prisons. Cal Poly Humboldt will launch the ninth prison program in spring 2024, partnering with Pelican Bay State Prison. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation operates 35 prison facilities.

In 1994, Congress passed a crime bill explicitly prohibiting incarcerated people from receiving Pell grants. But in 2015, the Obama administration launched the Second Chance Pell Experiment. From 2015 to 2023, the program grew from 67 to 200 participating colleges and universities.

Sacramento State became one of the experiment’s participants in 2021, launching bachelor’s degree programs at Folsom and Mule Creek state prisons. On May 25 this year, university President Robert S. Nelsen presented Love and 10 classmates at Folsom State Prison with bachelor’s degrees, the first cohort to graduate through the Transforming Outcomes Project at Sacramento State (TOPSS) program.

In 2021, 11 students were accepted into the Sacramento State program; a total of 65 will matriculate this fall, according to David Zuckerman, acting director of TOPSS.

“They’re Sac Students like any other, they just have a weird mailing address,” Zuckerman said. “They read the exact same books, the exact same lecture notes, and have the exact same people as teach on campus.”

Every student who has applied to the program has been Pell-eligible. The new federal policy means the program can accept more students, Zuckerman said.

At the statewide level, the policy could open the door for additional California prisons to offer degree programs.

More than 9,000 students across the country earned degrees through Second Chance Pell programs from 2016 to 2021. When Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act of 2020, an overhaul of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid system, it included the expansion of Pell grant eligibility to incarcerated students.

Colleges and universities will still have to meet certain benchmarks in order to have prison education programs, an effort to make sure the programs are operating in the students’ interests.

Around 13,000 people incarcerated in California pursue two- or four-year degrees through the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation every year. Education programs have been expanding even as the prison population has been declining, especially as data shows that they reduce the likelihood of re-incarceration.

“The only thing that we’re giving them is the chance to walk across the bridge to get an education. We’re not handing them anything. We’re giving them a chance, and they’re taking that chance,” Zuckerman said.

‘Major return on investment’: Prison program should save money

People who participated in prison education programs were 48% less likely to return to prison within three years than people who did not, according to a study from RAND corporation, a nonprofit policy research group. This translates to cost savings: for every dollar invested in correctional education programs, $4 to $5 are saved on re-incarceration costs.

“This is a major return on investment for the taxpayer,” said Zuckerman. “Because these folks are finishing their programs. They’re staying clean, they’re staying out of trouble.”

For the 2023-24 academic year, the maximum federal Pell grant is $7,395 – though incarcerated students typically receive less, Zuckerman said, because they aren’t paying for room and board. It costs $106,131 to incarcerate someone in California for one year, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

In 2016, California started offering sentence reductions in exchange for completing classes and degrees. Earning an associate or bachelor’s degree, for example, can reduce an individual’s sentence by six months. By the time Love applied to Sacramento State, he had two associate degrees.

Data have shown that the higher the degree, the lower the recidivism rate: While three quarters of released prisoners are rearrested within five years, that number is slashed to 14% for those with an associate’s degree and 5.6% for those with a bachelor’s degree, according to nationwide data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Only one student in Sacramento State’s prison program has quit school. Multiple, including Love, are pursuing master’s degrees. And, in spite of many incarcerated students working full-time jobs while taking courses, their GPA is higher than that of the general student body, with more than 90% of TOPSS students making the dean’s list for academic achievement each semester.

Love even obtained permission from a warden to use a computer to virtually present a paper at an international conference. “That was a first,” Zuckerman said.

“We want that to be exemplary because we understand that there are those that are against us getting an education,” Love said. “Of course for us that just makes us want to try even harder and go above and beyond.”

For Love, post-incarceration life looks bright

Love now works for Project Rebound, a statewide network that connects students who have been incarcerated and want to attend college following their release, at Sacramento State.

In the fall, he’ll teach a public speaking course at the university while pursuing a master’s degree in communications studies.

“Every dream that I’ve had has started to manifest as a result of the TOPSS program and Project Rebound,” Love said. “Without those two, it could be possible that I could still be inside right now.”

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