A Pioneer in Prison Education Challenges a $6.1-Million Bill From the Feds
When Congress lifted a 26-year ban on providing federal Pell Grants for people in prison, federal regulators and criminal-justice advocates worried that, without adequate safeguards, the education students got on the inside might not measure up to what they’d get on the outside.
They feared that colleges eager to tap into hundreds of thousands of potential new students might cut corners and that students who exhausted their Pell Grants on substandard programs wouldn’t be any better off when they were released. The U.S. Department of Education put educators on notice last October with a
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When Congress lifted a 26-year ban on providing Pell Grants to people in prison, federal regulators and criminal-justice advocates worried that, without adequate safeguards, the education students got on the inside might not measure up to what they’d get on the outside.
They feared that colleges eager to tap into hundreds of thousands of potential new students might cut corners and that students who had exhausted their Pell Grants on substandard programs wouldn’t be any better off when they were released. The U.S. Department of Education put educators on notice last October with a 370-page rules document that said programs would be scrutinized carefully. Corrections agencies, accreditors, and advocacy groups would all be part of the process of assessing programs’ quality and raising concerns.
One of the first programs caught in the cross hairs of the Education Department is Ashland University, a private Christian university in central Ohio that’s been offering classes in prisons since 1964. It now has courses, taught on electronic tablets, in correctional facilities in 13 states and the District of Columbia.
In July the Education Department upheld its 2022 decision that Ashland had collected $6.1 million more in Pell Grant money than it should have from 2019 to 2021. It ordered Ashland to pay back that amount — a decision Ashland challenged in September in a complaint against the department.
If forced to pay back that money, Ashland argued, its “ability to teach its students will be significantly diminished and these students will be adversely affected, particularly incarcerated students who will lose a proven tool that has placed many lives on a more productive and more successful trajectory.”
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At issue is the length of the academic calendars Ashland offered, and was collecting Pell money for, during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 award years. Pell awards are based on whether a program uses an academic calendar that provides at least 30 weeks or less than 30 weeks of instructional time over two semesters.
Ashland’s traditional students, on its home campus in Ohio, received at least 30 weeks of instruction over two semesters, the department noted, while incarcerated students got 24 weeks. The department found that Ashland had over-collected Pell Grant funds for the incarcerated students “based on its use of 30 weeks of instruction in its calculations.”
Ashland officials disagreed. They said the programs offered in prisons from 2016 to 2020 aren’t stand-alone programs; they’re part of five existing educational programs, authorized by the Ohio Department of Higher Education, that use a 30-week calendar. The prison courses, Ashland said, cover the same content, just in a compressed time frame that works better in prisons, so they should draw the same level of Pell Grant funding.
Ashland officials said that, while the university uses the terms “fine” and “penalty” in its legal complaint, the Education Department wasn’t assessing a penalty for any illegal activity; it just wanted the money it believed it was owed returned.
An Education Department spokesperson said the agency does not comment on active litigation. Ashland did not make anyone available for an interview, but a spokesman, Hugh Howard, told The Chronicle that a 12-week format each semester works better in prison because it provides more time to reset technology, redistribute textbooks, and handle academic appeals between terms.
When professors come to the prison to teach, calculating class hours is fairly straightforward. But Ashland students learn at their own pace on electronic tablets owned by private companies, including Texas-based Securus Technologies. Unless limited internet service is available in the prison, incarcerated students must plug their tablets in to a kiosk at the prison to communicate with professors and sync the tablets so they can send and receive coursework.
The approach has become increasingly common in the nation’s prisons as Ashland expands its footprint. More than 1,500 incarcerated students have earned degrees since 2016 from Ashland.
Ashland, Howard wrote in an email, has “has established a tradition of excellence in a space rife with exploitation and bad actors.”
In Class or Online?
Still, some advocates for incarcerated people question whether they’re being well served by a program that requires them to learn by themselves, without any in-person contact with a professor or other students to discuss ideas with.
“Having gone through the pandemic, when we couldn’t go into the prisons for a long time, we got to see what it’s like to have a program with no direct face-to-face engagement between professors and students,” said Eitan Freedenberg, deputy director of the Rochester Education Justice Initiative, a partnership between the University of Rochester and the State University of New York’s Genesee Community College.
Both the Rochester program and Ashland offer courses in the Attica Correctional Facility, the site of the notorious 1971 uprising, when at least 40 inmates and guards were killed. “While we were able to make do with that reality, it threw into stark relief just how invaluable that in-class experience is,” Freedenberg said.
Cornell University teaches liberal-arts courses in four prisons in upstate New York. Rob Scott, executive director of Cornell’s prison-education program, said Ashland’s remote, asynchronous education model might seem, to some prison administrators, an easier model to deal with: no clearances to arrange, classrooms to reserve, or schedules to set. The programs are free for the vast majority of students enrolled, and cost nothing for the prisons to run.
Prison administrators might wonder, Scott said, “Why let those campuses send their liberal faculty in here to teach when we already have Ashland here and don’t have to escort anyone around or send them through metal detectors?”
But students miss out, Scott said, when they aren’t able to brainstorm with one another and can’t get to know their professor. “It’s less work for prison staff if they stay in their cells and do college on a tablet that students have described to me as being smaller than two packages of ramen,” Scott said. At the same time, he and Freedenberg said, prisons in remote areas might not have colleges nearby that are able to offer in-person classes. The Ashland model might be inmates’ best hope of earning college credentials.
Kim Barnette, who served as Louisiana’s director of correctional education from 2004 until 2017, said Ashland was one of the easiest and most effective educational programs she had brought to that state, beginning in 2016. Barnette, who is now a consultant for corrections and law-enforcement agencies, doesn’t think Ashland should have to pay back the $6.1 million. Incarcerated students can cover the same ground in 12 weeks, she said, that students with more obligations on the outside might cover in 15.
“The incarcerated population works a little faster because they can sit on their bunk at night with their headphones on and their Chromebooks out and communicate with their teachers,” she said. Students may have prison jobs during the day, but in the evenings, “they don’t have a life getting in the way — children screaming in their ear and having to sit and pay bills.”
Barnette agreed that, whenever possible, face-to-face instruction is better than remote learning, but she said she had failed to persuade a public university to take over that job. One challenge, she said, was fielding enough students to fill classrooms. In a women’s facility that housed 1,100 women, she said, once officials had filtered out those who had high-school diplomas or their equivalents, who didn’t already have college degrees, and who scored high enough on an entrance test to benefit from college, “our cohort was down to eight students.” Offering English 101 might work, she said, but what about the courses students would eventually need for their majors?
A Second Chance
Ashland’s prison education began in 1964 but really took off in 2016, when it was selected as one of 67 institutions starting what became known as the Second Chance Pell program. The program later grew to more than 200 participating colleges.
College classes in prisons had all but ground to a halt after 1994, when Congress banned incarcerated people from getting Pell Grants as part of a sweeping “tough on crime” bill. In 2015, under President Barack Obama, the Second Chance Pell initiative was created to test the waters for Congress’s move, five years later, to fully lift the 26-year-old ban.
The program injected some sorely needed funding for Ashland, which in 2015 had laid off about two dozen instructors, some of them tenured. The prison-education program has brought in $79 million in Pell funds since 2016, according to Ashland’s chief financial officer.
Meanwhile, Ashland’s prison-education enrollment is constrained by the Education Department’s rules, which, for Ashland, require special waivers if the incarcerated enrollment is more than 50 percent of its on-campus population. Ashland’s Ohio campus enrolls just over 3,000 undergraduates and graduate students, down from 4,900 in 2016. Its prison enrollment is just over 2,300.