On Thursday, Feb. 14th, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) announced its continuation of the Second Chance Pell initiative through the 2019-2020 semesters. The extension of the Second Chance Pell Initiative for its fourth year comes as a relief to those around the country who advocate for access to higher education for the incarcerated population. Since the establishment of the Second Chance Pell initiative in 2016, this initiative has gained a great deal of interest and support. Over 60 higher education institutions have partnered with correctional facilities across the U.S. to create a program with a mission to effectively lower recidivism by providing reliable resources to higher education.
The Pell Grant is designed to provide federal finical support for low-income students seeking to attend college, while also providing increased opportunities for underrepresented groups. Since the creation of the Pell Grant in 1972 post-secondary education opportunities through this style of funding was a consistent resource in correctional facilities across the U.S. Unfortunately, in 1994, The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (crime bill) was enacted, and it prohibited inmates from receiving Pell Grants. The loss of funding caused many higher education institutions to close their doors on partnerships with correctional institutions. Prior to 1994, there were over 350 college programs in prisons, but within ten years of the crime bill being signed less than 15 programs remained. It wasn't until two decades later that the Pell funding was reintroduced to the incarcerated population through the Second Chance initiative.
In 2016, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections created their own program called The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program or otherwise known as the Pell program. The pilot was designed as an experiment in order to estimate the true effect exposure to higher education has on recidivism. The DOC's Pell Program is structured as a full randomized controlled trial. Inmates who meet DOC and DOE criteria will be randomly assigned to either the treatment condition; where participants receive the higher education, or control condition; where participants do not receive the higher education.
Both the DOC and the POE have established eligibility criteria in order for inmates to participate in the DOC Pell program. The DOC requires that all applicants must have a high school Diploma or GED; must meet the standards of a high school reading level; and must be within seven years of their minimum release date, but no closer than six months to their minimum release date. Also, applicants cannot be a classified as a sex offender; cannot have any violent misconducts within the past five years; must be in good standing with their institution; and finally, they must be able to meet the requisite requirements set forth by DOE.
In order to receive a Pell grant, applicants must successfully complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is a federal form that is prepared annually by current and prospective college students in the United States to determine their eligibility for student financial aid like the Pell grant. The FAFSA itself is a 10-page application with over 100 questions and can require extra documentation such as proof of selective service registration, tax information, record of finances/ income, and social security information. Obtaining these documents while incarcerated can be challenging because the corrections environment requires the application to be completed on paper and through the U.S. mail system. This process can take several weeks and sometimes months. During this time applicants risk becoming temporarily ineligible, missing out on enrollment periods and potentially losing interest in the program.
The DOC Pell program is currently administered at six State Correctional Institutions (SCI) in collaboration with three postsecondary educational institutions: Bloomsburg University (BU), Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), and Lehigh Carbon Community College (LCCC). Bloomsburg is currently offering coursework for a Certificate in Rehabilitative Justice at SCI Muncy and SCI Mahanoy. Indiana University is currently offering course work for an Associate of the Arts degree in General Studies at SCI Pine Grove and SCI Houtzdale. Lehigh Carbon is currently offering courses for an Associate in Applied Science ("AAS") in Business Management and in Accounting, along with a specialized Diploma in Entrepreneurship and Small Business at SCI Frackville and SCI Mahanoy.
There are 69 active enrolled students in the DOC Pell program with 24 students enrolled with BU, 16 students enrolled with IUP, and 29 students enrolled with LCCC. Since the establishment of the Second Chance Pell program in 2016, the DOC has produced five cohorts and all together 122 students have been actively enrolled in the program. At the end of the 2018 fall semester, Bloomsburg graduated 10 students from its program. Lehigh Carbon will graduate two enrolled cohorts this year. The first cohort will graduate nine students at the end of summer 2019 and the second cohort will graduate nine students at the end of fall 2019. The DOC Pell pilot program is currently in the process of developing its sixth cohort enrollment for the fall college semester of 2019. Classes are conducted in the spring, summer and fall semesters of each year. Students are required to follow all education course policies and standards held by the universities.
Initiatives such as the Second Chance pilot program do more than just lower recidivism. This initiative is working towards improving communities, families and increasing public safety through access to higher education. The DOC prison population has reached record breaking lows and it is a fact that majority of the prison population will one day be release back into society. It is the responsibility of the state to provide long-term alternatives to crime that will better support our society from a cost perspective, justice perspective and moral perspective. This is done through working to support, secure and improve programs such as the Pell initiative for the long term.