Many comments focused on the role of corrections agencies in approving and evaluating prison education programs. They have neither the expertise nor the resources to properly evaluate education programs, advocates said. In addition, they argued that the regulation is asking corrections departments to do what state higher education departments and accrediting agencies already do.
Commenters expressed concern that the extra burden put on corrections agencies could disincentivize them from partnering with colleges to offer education in the first place and produce unintended barriers to new programs, particularly in light of the staff shortages that have plagued corrections departments across the country.
“Beyond a lack of expertise, oversight entities also lack the staff capacity and resources/funding to fulfill this role, which may discourage them from supporting postsecondary programing simply due to the regulatory burden,” Ithaka S+R wrote
“Moreover, correctional agencies operate from a distinctly different set of priorities, namely security and control, that may fundamentally disincline them from supporting access to higher education for those in their custody.”
While corrections agencies would ultimately have authority to determine which programs are allowed into facilities, “requiring DOCs to monitor and evaluate prison education programs is unnecessary because it is not mandated by statute and accreditation and approval agencies already oversee higher education,” noted
the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison
The Bard Prison Initiative
, which serves 300 students in seven New York prisons, said
that higher education in prison should reflect the same standards and be responsible to the same agencies that accredit and monitor higher education outside of prison.
“The more we create separate and prison-specific processes, the less college-in-prison will resemble higher education outside of prison and risk becoming a backwater of low quality and exploitation,” they wrote.
The proposed regulations also give broad discretion to correctional agencies in determining which students would be admitted to programs. While Pell eligibility is “sentence-blind,” some advocates also expressed concern that corrections agencies would limit enrollment to people who will be released soon or exclude learners with certain convictions. They urged the Education Department to explicitly prevent corrections agencies from adding student eligibility restrictions.
Some stakeholders also proposed greater accountability mechanisms for corrections agencies and/or an appeals process if programs were denied, and advocated allowing states more room to determine the appropriate entity to perform monitoring and evaluation of prison education programs.
Must vs. may
The conversation about metrics hinged largely on the use of a single word: must. A big part of the role of oversight entities is to approve prison education programs and determine whether they meet the “best interest” of the students. The language matters because “must” requires a program to collect data on those metrics, whereas “may” does not.
The proposed rules use the term “must” in laying out a list of data that corrections agencies and colleges have to collect. But many commenters argued for more flexibility in determining what is actually feasible and relevant to their particular program.
The data the proposed rules would require includes (see page 2 of the proposed regulations
for more details):
- Further education
- Job placement rates
- Instructor turnover
- Credit transfer and degree pathways
- Academic and career advising.
The current list of metrics, representatives of prison ed programs and researchers argued, was adopted from the language in the bill passed by Congress, but they were intended to be examples of the things that agencies might consider when looking at programs, some commentators noted. They are prescriptive and not based on research, much of which is still nascent, critics said.
Hudson Link expressed concern
that the current required metrics could lead to some students being denied admission and others being admitted because they were likely to be successful based on those criteria. “A devastating consequence of this could be college programs creating admissions practices that screen for a student’s type of conviction, the number of years on their sentence, or other criteria that would result in a student body with as few reentry barriers as possible,” they wrote.
Several state agencies reported that they would be unable to meet some of the data collection requirements. The Kansas Department of Corrections said
that it could not track job placement rates, partly because it allows eligible students regardless of length of sentence into programs, but also because the department has specific policies prohibiting contact with a person returning to the community, and the state agencies in Kansas do not currently have any form of data-sharing agreement in place.
Other state correctional agencies indicated that they do not want
to be responsible for assessing whether or not prison education programs were operating in the “best interest” of students, notably the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision
. “We are gravely concerned about being the entity to determine the qualifications of college professors, staff turnover, transferability of credits earned, and professor performance evaluations,” Anthony J. Annucci
, acting commissioner, wrote
on behalf of the department.
Their position deviated from that of the Correctional Leadership Association
, which represents the leaders of all U.S. state corrections agencies, the federal Bureau of Prisons, military prisons, and several larger county correctional agencies. “We believe that corrections directors are the appropriate entity to approve or reject a [prison education program] and conduct the ‘best interests determination’,” executive director Kevin Kempf wrote
“While we appreciate that stakeholders and advocates in the prison education space have raised concerns about this designation…given the nature of correctional institutions and safety and security considerations, corrections agencies must be given the authority to assess and evaluate whether a prison education program should be permitted inside a facility.”
Reentry services was another theme in many of the comments. The nonprofit College and Community Fellowship noted
that several of the metrics focus on reentry indicators, but students cannot meet them without reentry support. Another issue brought up was the two-year time frame for data collection and reporting, which some stakeholders noted would not be feasible given the time it takes to set up data sharing agreements.
Correspondence courses and juvenile facilities
Colleges such as Adams State University and Rio Salado Community College that offer print-based programs are urging more clarification around correspondence classes, including specifying that correspondence students are Pell eligible and including a different approval process that recognizes their unique instruction mode.
They argue that correspondence courses are the only options for students in some places, but because they serve a limited number of students in many facilities it’s not practical to enter into agreements with every single corrections agency. Adams State, for instance, serves 800 students in 357 facilities in 50 states
. Only 12 percent of the facilities served have more than five Adams State students.
Rio Salado College, a two-year college in Arizona, enrolls 1000 correspondence students at 45 different facilities. Nearly half of those facilities had only one student. “It is unlikely that any of the facilities would collaborate or engage in the cumbersome prison education program application and evaluative process for a handful of students,”
Juvenile justice advocates such as the Youth Law Center
that the proposed regulations remove
the current Pell eligibility for people in juvenile justice facilities and county jails. In 2014, the Education Department clarified that under current rules, people who are incarcerated in local or county jails, or juvenile detention facilities, ARE eligible for Pell grants for any education program they can access from their facility.
The same applies to people in pretrial detention, or who are awaiting sentencing.
The proposed regulations would allow people in juvenile facilities or jails who are already enrolled in college programs to continue to use Pell until 2029, but would require new students confined in those facilities to be enrolled in an approved prison education program.
++ To browse all the public comments on Pell for prison education programs, see the downloaded files here. Thanks to Bradley Custer of the Center for American Progress for his assistance in collecting the comments.