Former Prisoners Describe How Education Transformed Their Lives

Today’s edition of Politico’s Morning Education features some great personal testimony coming out of yesterday’s Second Chance Pell event hosted by the Vera Institute of Justice and others:

FORMER PRISONERS GET PERSONAL: Three former prisoners described to Education Secretary John B. King Jr. on Tuesday how college programs they participated in while incarcerated transformed their lives – even as post-prison life hasn’t been easy. “Second chances are possible. People really do need them,” said Jason Bell, now a student at Lake Michigan College. Bell entered prison at age 23, with just a fourth-grade level education.

– Bell and Devon Simmons, a former prisoner who recently graduated from CUNY Hostos Community College with honors , described getting a GED in prison but then facing years-long gaps without schooling while jailed – until college opportunities opened for them behind bars. Once out, Simmons said he was able to complete his degree despite getting shot right after his release from prison by someone “seeking prior revenge.” He credits support from the Prison-to-College Pipeline program through John Jay College (part of the City University of New York) with helping him. He’s now taking a screenwriting class at Columbia University. “I’m just taking it one day at a time,” Simmons said. “I’m honored to have a second chance because that doesn’t come to many.”

– Ivelisse “Bibi” Gilestra said participating in education programs in prison gave her a sense of community. Gilestra said she was no longer just a prison number, “I was student such and such.” Even as she’s now a Rutgers University student, she said “nobody leaves prison unaffected.” When she left, she said she was a “nomad” because she couldn’t live in her mother’s public housing unit because of her record. She’s had to take multiple low-paying jobs because she fails employer background checks.

– The three spoke at an event focused on the Education Department’s Second Chance Pell program, hosted by the Vera Institute of Justice and others. King told Morning Education afterward that college access behind bars changes the culture of a prison. “You can shift the culture within the prison as folks realize there are these educational opportunities available,” King said. Roughly 12,000 inmates are expected to participate in the experimental program, which will provide an estimated $30 million in Pell Grants to prisoners. Congressional Republicans have questioned the department’s authority to roll out the program, and whether it’s the best use of taxpayer dollars.

There is a longer piece about this over at Politico Pro, if you are a subscriber.

Pell Grant “Experimentation” May Go Beyond Expanding Access to the Incarcerated

Big news today in the world of correctional education, with the Wall Street Journal, Politico, and others reporting that the Obama administration is about to announce an “experimental” program to expand incarcerated adults’ access to Pell grants. (Congress made federal and state prisoners ineligible for federal financial aid back in the mid-1990s.) According to these sources, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is scheduled to make “an important announcement related to federal aid” during a visit to a Maryland prison on Friday.

While the attention this week is on incarcerated adults, the administration’s Pell “experimentation” may eventually extend into other areas. Speculation yesterday about the administration announcing a plan to restore access to Pell for prisoners was prompted by a speech Duncan gave earlier in the day — while mainly focused on higher education outcomes, there was a brief aside towards the end about how the administration was looking to “experiment” with expanded Pell access. But that part of the speech, excerpted below, was not only about expanding Pell access to incarcerated adults:

We want to do even more, developing experimental sites that will make Pell grants available to programs that award credentials based on demonstrated competency, to incarcerated adults seeking an independent, productive life after they get out of jail, and to adult learners who enroll in short-term certificate programs that provide meaningful job-ready training. (my emphasis)

So stay tuned. The news this week may be the first of several Pell announcements with significant implications for adult learners.

Dept. of Education Apparently Has Authority to Waive At Least Some Pell Grant Requirements Without Congressional Approval

Politico published an interesting story last week by Libby Nelson on the potential executive actions the administration could take to address some of the President’s higher education proposals. This section, in particular, caught my eye:

The Education Department could also give colleges the flexibility to test new programs by waiving financial aid rules. The department already experiments with new approaches to financial aid. One current experiment allows students who already have a bachelor’s degree to get another Pell Grant — not typically allowed — so they can enroll in a vocational program.

Colleges volunteer to participate in the experiments, and the Education Department has the authority to waive legal requirements. A similar approach could be used, at least on a small scale, to try out additional innovative programs.

Obama singled out a program at Southern New Hampshire University that allows students to earn degrees at their own pace by completing readings and taking tests to show how much they’ve learned. Other experiments could let students use financial aid to pay for tests that let them earn credit for skills picked up outside the classroom. Or they could expand federal financial aid to include high school students earning college credit through dual enrollment programs. (my emphasis)

This section—particularly the last sentence—raises the question as to whether the administration could/would use this authority to provide something resembling “ability to benefit” (ATB) Pell Grant eligibility for certain adults or out-of-school youth without a high-school diploma—perhaps on an “experimental,” college-by-college basis. (ATB was eliminated in a budget deal back in 2012.) There have been proposals in recent months to try to legislatively restore ATB for students enrolled in certain dual enrollment programs—could something similar be done via administrative action?

(Putting aside for now the equity issue raised by restoring ATB eligibility only for students with access to certain approved programs.)

Community College Enrollments (and College Enrollments in General) Are Down

From Inside Higher Ed:

Data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center on Tuesday—in the first of what the center says will be twice-a-year snapshots of up-to-date enrollment statistics—show that college enrollments declined by 1.8 percent in fall 2012, driven by larger drops for for-profit colleges -7.2 percent and community colleges -3.1 percent. Enrollment fell by 0.6 percent at four-year public colleges and universities, and rose by half a percentage point at four-year private nonprofit colleges(my emphasis)

The declines, which follow on a very small decline in fall 2011, as reported in federal government data in recent months, are unsurprising, given that college enrollments typically rise and fall with the unemployment rate. So the fact that the enrollment boom that colleges enjoyed as the economy tanked in 2008 and 2009 has begun to reverse itself is in many ways to be expected.

But that suggests that the philanthropic and government efforts to get significant numbers of adults to go to college or to return there to pursue President Obamas goal of driving up the number of Americans with a postsecondary credential may not be bearing much fruit(my emphasis)

Here is a link to the report itself: Term Enrollment Estimates, Fall 2012.

h/t @edfunding