More incarcerated Ohioans could be able to take college courses through Pell Grants

The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.

This is the first in a series of stories about education opportunities in Ohio’s prisoners. 

More incarcerated Ohioans could soon be eligible to take college classes while behind bars.

Pell Grants for incarcerated students went into effect on July 1 — meaning an estimated 760,000 additional incarcerated people could be eligible for a Pell Grant through prison education programs, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“Prison education programs reduce recidivism rates and create meaningful opportunities for redemption and rehabilitation that improve lives, strengthen communities, and reflect America’s ideal as a nation of second chances and limitless possibilities,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a June news release.

Those who participate in some type of education program while incarcerated were up to 43% less likely to return to prison and were 13% more likely to be employed, according to a RAND Corporation Survey.

College courses for the incarcerated have lead to a 15% reduction in recidivism in Ohio, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC).

The maximum Federal Pell Grant award is $7,395 for the current academic year.

Ohio prisons 

The Ohio Central School System (OCSS) is a state-supported school system through ODRC that provides educational opportunities to the incarcerated. All 28 of Ohio’s adult prisons have educational opportunities.

ODRC has partnered with seven Ohio colleges and universities: Ashland University, Kent State University, Marion Technical College, Franklin University, Sinclair Community College, North Central State Community College, and Wilmington College.

Each of those schools — with the expectation of Franklin and Wilmington — already have some level of Pell Grant eligibility. But Franklin and Wilmington recently started to initiate the process to become Pell eligible, said Ohio Central School System Superintendent Jennifer Sanders.

“I think that opens significantly more doors for these inmates who, hopefully, will be formerly incarcerated at some point in the near future and having that bachelor’s degree will hopefully get them much further along in terms of providing for their families, reintegrating into society and being constructive and productive citizens again,” said Kody Kuehnl, Franklin University’s STEM Director and Dean of the College of Arts, Science and Technology.

Higher education institutions have to apply to offer post secondary programs and the U.S. Department of Education said it “will approve applications on a rolling basis.”

Franklin, which offers classes at London Correctional Institution, has submitted the necessary steps so far with ODRC and is waiting to hear back from their regional accreditor — the Higher Learning Commission, Kuehnl said. Once they have gone through HLC, the university can apply to the U.S. Department of Education.

“What Pell does is allow us to have more students and more colleges, providing post-secondary degrees in in-demand job fields,” Sanders said. “We believe that having this additional financial resources is going to increase our numbers.”

Almost all of Ohio’s 28 prisons have a waitlist for college, she said.

“I would love to have the day where we have so much availability that we don’t have a waitlist for college,” Sanders said. “That is my hope.”

History of Pell Grants for prisoners 

The federal Pell Grant program was created in 1972 and has been awarding grants to students since the 1973-74 academic year. But Congress nixed Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated people back in 1994.

Those incarcerated could previously receive Pell Grants through the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, which launched in 2015 by the U.S. Department of Education. More than 40,000 students received Pell Grants under the initiative during the 2021-22 award year, according to the Vera Institute.

The expanded Pell Grant provisions have been in the works since it passed as part of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid Simplification Act in December 2020.

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