By: Charlotte West Open Campus

Caddell Kivett is ready to go back to college. He sorted out some old, defaulted student loans. He figured out what he wants to study. And he thought he had found a new way to pay for his classes.

Except Kivett, 52, is in prison.

He’ll be able, in theory, to use a federal Pell Grant to help pay for his education come July. It marks the first time in nearly three decades that incarcerated people – as many as 700,000 of them, according to the Education Department – are broadly eligible for the aid, and the policy change could open up new college opportunities across the country.

The expansion of Pell Grants has been a long-sought change since the 1994 crime bill eliminated them for people in prison and ended the majority of prison education programs. Although educating people in prison has been shown to have a number of benefits, the new money may be difficult for many to access for a host of reasons.

In Kivett’s case, the only higher-ed option at his North Carolina facility is a theology degree. He wants to study journalism after working for the prison newspaper, the Nash News.

And he learned a harsh reality after months of phone calls and letters to colleges that offer accredited, paper-based correspondence courses: The federal aid can be used only at prisons that have Pell-eligible college programs. His doesn’t.

Studies show that prison education increases the chance of someone getting a job after release and decreases the likelihood that they’ll go back to prison. Providing education to those who won’t ever go home has benefits, too. Lifers often become mentors to others, which helps create a more positive prison culture. Pell Grants are the main form of federal financial aid for low-income students, which includes most incarcerated learners, providing a maximum annual award of $7,395.

Many prisons lack college access

But Pell funds won’t be enough to suddenly make college available to everyone like Kivett. Basic information gaps need to be filled, college support structures need to be built, and departments of correction need to sort out their new role in all of this. Congress assigned them the task of approving new prison education programs.

That raises questions about how programs are assessed and who ensures they are actually meeting students’ needs. And it means opportunities will vary widely by state. Right now, incarcerated people in fewer than a third of state and federal prisons have access to postsecondary education, and much of what is offered doesn’t lead to an academic degree.


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