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College students in Washington’s prisons will soon have access to federal Pell Grants

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College students in Washington’s prisons will soon have access to federal Pell Grants

May 16, 2024 | 5:00 pm ET
By Grace Deng
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College students in Washington’s prisons will soon have access to federal Pell Grants
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Close up of FAFSA form. (Richard Stephens/Getty Images)

Compared to the rest of the country, Washington already has a robust college prison program funded by the state — but thanks to new federal dollars, offerings for students behind bars are set to expand. 

That’s because the U.S. Department of Education last summer restored federal Pell Grants for incarcerated students, following a nearly 30-year ban as part of the 1994 federal “tough on crime” bill signed by President Bill Clinton.

Washington, alongside states across the country, is rushing to put these new funds to use and passed legislation in 2024 to use federal funding for the state’s college prison courses. 

Advocates are excited about the new model because federal money could allow prison college programs to expand available courses and enroll more students. 

It’s more challenging to fund college prison programs with state dollars because budgets change based on tax revenue and politics, said Ruth Delaney, who helps scale up college programs in prisons as part of her work with the Vera Institute of Justice. 

“There’s never a situation where someone does not get a Pell Grant because someone else did,” Delaney said. “State budgets always have that limitation.” 

Nationwide, more than 750,000 incarcerated students could be eligible for Pell Grants. To qualify, they must be below family income limits. They also have to be at a prison offering a college program approved by the federal government. 

In Washington, all state prisons already have college programs. But they still need federal approval to access Pell Grant money — one of many administrative hurdles prolonging the process of moving Washington’s existing system toward a Pell-based model. 

The state’s original goal was to implement the new model this fall. Now, the plan is to make it available sometime in 2025, said Hanan Al-Zubaidy, associate director of corrections education at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. 

“The process is taking a lot longer [than expected],” said Al-Zubaidy. “There are a lot of students who are anxious to jump in. We’re really knee-deep in the details of trying to figure out when and how we’re going to make this happen.”

Washington’s prison programs

Nearly 3,000 of the state’s 13,538 prisoners were enrolled in postsecondary education from July 2022 to June 2023, according to a report last year from the Department of Corrections.

“In Washington, there’s a good strong history of providing post-secondary education [in prison],” said Delaney. “In the vacuum of no federal financial aid, some states figured out how to keep college in prison going, and Washington’s one of them.” 

Research shows recidivism decreases as education level increases. Prisoners say that college helped them rehabilitate and engage in civic responsibilities. Ralph Dunuan, who got his associate’s degree while imprisoned at Monroe Correctional Complex, said many of his friends involved in criminal justice reform while in prison got into advocacy due to college classes. 

“We started expanding our thinking,” said Dunuan, who has since been transferred to Washington Corrections Center. “I really started challenging not only my beliefs, but my actions based upon those beliefs.”

For about eight years, the Legislature has allowed the Department of Corrections to allocate state funding to colleges to provide workforce degree programs in prison. In 2022, lawmakers started allowing the department to fund Direct Transfer Associate degrees, which students can transfer to four-year colleges once they leave prison. 

Washington also participates in the federal Second Chance Pell Experiment, a pilot Pell program established by the Obama administration in 2015. However, only 128 prisoners in Washington are enrolled in Second Chance Pell, according to the 2023 Department of Corrections report.

Benefits and challenges with Pell Grants

Proponents of moving to Pell funding say the new federal regulations will improve the quality of college programs in prison. Colleges will have performance reviews every six years and must agree to submit data to the Department of Education. 

The regulations also require colleges to be more closely connected to students. The idea, said Al-Zubaidy, is to mirror the services provided to students on campus but in prison. 

“It’s such a great opportunity to serve our students in the best way possible,” Al-Zubaidy said. 

Pell money will also allow the state to expand to bachelor’s degree programs. Despite the more rigorous requirements, there’s been a lot of interest from schools, including four-year colleges, said Al-Zubaidy. 

Currently, the state has three bachelor’s degree programs in prison, offered through Walla Walla Community College, Puget Sound University and Evergreen State College. 

Al-Zubaidy said moving from a state-funded model to a tuition-based model will be a challenge for Washington, even though the state plans to continue funding students who aren’t eligible for Pell Grants, including through the Washington College Grant.

To access Pell Grant funds, students will need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly referred to as the FAFSA. But filling out the FAFSA can be complicated and confusing even for students who aren’t in prison, let alone for those behind bars, who may find it difficult or impossible to access documents needed to complete the form. 

The U.S. Department of Education is working on addressing those concerns, Al-Zubaidy said, and Washington plans to take a “hands-on advising approach” to ensure students have the information they need. 

Washington and many other states are also waiting on the U.S. Department of Education to approve its programs, which has been a steep administrative challenge across the country. As of late April, only one program – California’s – has been fully approved. 

Al-Zubaidy said Washington is lucky to have people who already know a bit about navigating the new system due to the state’s Second Chance Pell sites. 

“We’re in agreement that the top priority is we don’t want to disrupt students,” Al-Zubaidy said. “Until we get those approvals from the Department of Education, we’re going to do our best to keep operating the education programs.” 

Correction: A previous version of this story said the state only has one bachelor’s degree program in its prisons. There are three.