Hundreds of inmates at seven state prisons throughout Connecticut will soon be offered the chance to earn a college degree or certificate — for free.
Currently, the only free college programs offered behind bars are a small handful of courses provided by Wesleyan University, Trinity College and Quinnipiac University. Just 18 inmates were reported as having earned a college degree over the last 10 years while incarcerated in Connecticut’s jails.
That’s about to change.
Beginning in August, seven prisons will offer inmates enrollment in community college courses.
This is possible because the U.S. Department of Education has decided to test the impact of reversing a decades-old prohibition against giving inmates access to a federal financial aid program known as Pell Grants so they can afford to attend college.
The pilot program – dubbed Pell for Prisoners or Second Chance Pell – includes 67 schools nationwide and is expected to enroll 12,000 student prisoners at an annual cost of $30 million. More than 200 schools applied.
In Connecticut, four schools in the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities system were selected and an estimated 801 prisoners are expected to enroll. The CSCU system includes Connecticut’s public community colleges.
“We must be a society of permanent progress instead of permanent punishment, and we must be a society that invests in schools and education instead of jails,” said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat. “To lower crime, grow jobs, and support communities that have been plagued by backwards criminal justice policies, we must prepare those who are currently incarcerated to be successful outside our prison walls. We are grateful to President Obama for making these grants available – it is, simply, not just smart policy, but the right thing to do.”
CSCU President Mark Ojakian said he is trilled the White House selected four community colleges in Connecticut to participate.
“The Second Chance Pell grant is directly aligned with our core mission to increase access to a high quality education for all students who want it,” he said.
The courses that will be offered will allow students to work towards a general education or business-related associate’s degree or certificate.
Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield will provide courses at Willard-Cybulski, Robinson and Osborn correctional institutions. Middlesex Community College in Middletown will provide college courses at Cheshire and York. Quinebaug Valley Community College in Danielson will offer courses at Brooklyn Correctional; and Three Rivers Community College in Norwich will provide courses at York and Corrigan/Radgowski correctional institutions.
In the early 1990s, nearly every prison in the state offered inmates credit-granting college courses. But courses largely ceased after Congress voted in 1994 to exclude inmates from receiving the federal financial aid that supported most of these programs.
“Due to the state’s budget challenges, the Connecticut Department of Correction is presently unable to finance college-level courses and training without shifting the costs to inmate[s], which is unfeasible when most of our population lack the means to pay for their education while in prison,” DOC Commissioner Scott Semple wrote the federal government in October in support of the Board of Regents’ request to participate in the program.
Overall, Connecticut is one of 11 states that spends more on prisons than on higher education, according to a recent report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
This pilot program seeks to test whether an education helps decrease an inmate’s likelihood of ending up incarcerated again. In Connecticut, half of those who leave prison return within two years, the state reports.
When announcing the schools that have been selected, U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. pointed to research that shows educational attainment helps decrease the chances of these students re-offending once they leave prison.
“We all agree that crime must have consequences, but the men and women who have done their time and paid their debt deserve the opportunity to break with the past and forge new lives in their homes, workplaces ad communities,” King said on a conference call with reporters Thursday. “This belief in second chances is fundamental to who we are as Americans.”
Education is the need cited most by inmates leaving jail — above employment and financial assistance, according to the National Institute of Justice. But less than 3 percent of inmates nationwide have a college degree, and according to the Department of Justice’s most recent survey on the topic, studies show that those with higher education degrees are much less likely to wind up back in jail.
The current educational offerings behind bars are largely to help inmates earn a general education degree.
Inmates have had the option of having college materials sent to them and to self-teach and earn credit through a proxy exam, but few find the money to pay for these correspondence courses while behind bars. Three inmates paid for these courses themselves during the 2013-14 school year.
Inmates can earn vocational education certificates, which the DOC reports will prepare them for “entry level jobs when they are discharged.”
This announcement couldn’t come at a better time for the colleges. Enrollment has steadily dropped at the state’s community colleges as the traditional college-age population declines.
“We have the capacity to offer a lot of courses. We have the instructors. It wouldn’t be a burden to do this. It’s not a scary unknown. We’ve done it before,” said Eileen Peltier, the dean of workforce development and continuing education at Asnuntuck Community College.
A group on Democratic legislators – including Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, – have proposed making federal financial aid available to all inmates.
“We benefit as a society when prisoners have the necessary tools to create productive lives for themselves,” DeLauro said last year.
But such a change will face considerable pushback from some Republicans. On the same day the Obama Administration announced it would offer some inmates the federal Pell Grants, three legislators proposed the “Kids before Cons Act” that would restrict the department from offering such a pilot program.
State-funded financial aid is also not available for prisoners.
Correction: Trinity College and Quinnipiac University each provide one course a year to inmates at York Correctional. An earlier version of this story reported that Wesleyan was the only school to offer courses behind bars.