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Second Chance Pell Grants Will Fund College Classes For Some North Florida Inmates

Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Pro Photography Network
RAND Corporation

One North Florida community college is getting federal funds to educate incarcerated students.

Starting in the Spring of 2017, inmates at the Columbia County Correctional Annex will be able to enroll in college classes. The prison is partnering with Florida Gateway College in Lake City to roll out the program, which is federally funded through Second Chance Pell Grants. The Department of Corrections will select 50 students to pursue associates degrees or certificates in three areas: general education, environmental technology and horticulture. Daniel Cronrath oversees grants for the college.

“We’re going to be looking at individuals that will be released in the next five years, and we’re also going to be trying to identify folks in certain areas that they’ve already demonstrating a skillset or an interest, that they can thrive when they actually get out of prison so they don’t reoffend,” he said.

Instructors will teach classes in person at the prison, with some online components, although internet access will be heavily restricted. Students can enroll free of charge, and the grants will cover tuition, textbooks and fees. And the students will be housed in living - learning communities, similar to dorms in traditional colleges across the country. Here’s Cronrath again.

“Utilizing the cell concept as kind of a dormitory concept is a really a way to increase and promote their success but it’s also a way to help them within their confines to get the soft skills support that they need from their fellow inmates,” he said.

The rollout of the Second Chance Pell Grant marks the first time in 20 years that incarcerated students will be eligible for federal financial aid. And some critics are saying the Obama Administration is overstepping its authority. Congress has banned financial aid for prison inmates since 1994. But US Education Secretary John King argues the ban doesn’t apply to experimental programs like this one.

“We have been very concerned about this issue, and have experimental authority under the Higher Education Act to be able to restore access to Pell Grants as part of an experiment to gather evidence, to Secretary Castro’s point, evidence around what works in higher education for folks who are incarcerated,” King said.

There is resistance to using taxpayer money to educate prisoners, and the long-term future of the grants isn’t clear. But the administration says the program won’t take money away from other eligible students, and it will help inmates re-enter society. Daniel Cronrath believes it will drastically reduce recidivism.

“We look at it as a college in a broader context of we know if we reduce recidivism, beyond it just being the right thing to do, from a taxpayer perspective, we’re going to be saving the taxpayers a lot of money in the future by having people successfully enter the workforce rather than going back into prison for longer sentences. So that was really the motivating factor behind our decision,” Cronrath said.

Florida Gateway College is one 67 institutions nationwide to be selected for the program, and the only one in the state.