Vera and a coalition of allies led a four-year campaign that, at the end of 2020, successfully reversed the federal ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students. To achieve this historic victory, we worked in close partnership with College and Community Fellowship, the Drug Policy Alliance, Prison Fellowship, the Unlock Higher Ed coalition, corrections officials, college administrators, policymakers, and countless formerly incarcerated students who stepped forward to share their stories. Incarcerated people earn pennies per hour for the work they do in prison. Without financial aid, a college education would be completely unaffordable for nearly all of them. This counterproductive ban, a legacy of the 1994 Crime Bill, prevented people from pursing higher education that would have helped them secure employment when released from prison and avoid reincarceration. By 2023, tens of thousands of incarcerated students will be able to access financial aid while in prison.

With the reversal of the ban now secure, Vera is shifting its focus to implementation and ensuring that all incarcerated students can access and receive quality higher education. To provide guidance on this front, Vera launched the Corrections Education Leadership Academy (CELA) to help corrections leaders create statewide education systems for incarcerated people. CELA is assisting colleges and prisons with designing high-quality college-in-prison programs that include recruitment, student support, and staff training. Vera is also piloting strategies that colleges and corrections departments can adopt to reduce racial disparities for incarcerated students, most of whom are people of color, and improve enrollment and completion rates for students of color. Finally, Vera is helping college accrediting agencies—which are critical to ensuring the quality and success of large-scale programs—understand what quality college-in-prison programs look like.

This work will build on Vera’s experience as the designated technical assistance provider for the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative—a pilot program launched by the U.S. Department of Education to test the return of federal Pell Grants to people in prison. Second Chance Pell currently includes a total of 130 participating colleges in 42 states and the District of Columbia. In the 2019–2020 school year, 2,621 degrees or certificates were awarded to participants, and a total of 7,074 have been awarded since the program began in 2016.

Vera by the Numbers: Helping Incarcerated Students Thrive

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