Vera Institute of Justice | You Can Make Your Campus More Welcoming…

You Can Make Your Campus More Welcoming to Justice-Involved Students

Access to education changes lives. For students who are incarcerated, participating in college-in-prison programs can improve their quality of life behind bars and increase employment opportunities once they return home. Receiving a postsecondary education while incarcerated benefits students, their families, and their communities.

But the opportunity to access life-changing postsecondary education is still out of reach for most people in prison. The 1994 Crime Bill banned Pell Grants—federal need-based financial aid—for incarcerated students, making higher education inaccessible to most for nearly 30 years. That changed on July 1, 2023 when access to aid was restored.

Reinstating Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students means that more than 760,000 people in prison will have an easier time affording college behind bars. However, the limited number of college-in-prison programs available means that many prospective students still cannot access it. In order to realize the full potential of this change, more schools across the United States must work toward creating college-in-prison programs and ensure that they are fostering supportive, welcoming environments for justice-involved students.

Read on to find five actions you can take to advocate for a more inclusive, equitable campus.

Send an email or letter to your school's administration as a student or student organization to explain the need for a college-in-prison program and greater support for formerly incarcerated students. Copy the letter template below or download it as a PDF or Word document that can be updated with your school's information.


Dear [NAME],

On July 1, 2023, people in prison regained eligibility for Pell Grants—a historic policy change ending the ban set in place by the 1994 Crime Bill. The reinstatement of Pell eligibility means more people in prison will be able to afford college and incarcerated students will have access to a greater variety of postsecondary degrees and credentials. These changes could translate into thousands more people pursuing their degrees on college campuses across the United States, helping to break cycles of poverty and incarceration. These outcomes, however, are reliant on more colleges launching programs in prison and improving supportive services for formerly incarcerated students.

I am writing to urge [SCHOOL] to take the following steps to serve the thousands of people in [STATE] who have been impacted by the criminal legal system and policies that have fueled mass incarceration in the United States:

  1. Launch a program in prison: The Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) estimates that more than 760,000 incarcerated individuals are academically eligible to apply for Pell Grants, meaning that thousands more people in prison will be able to afford college in the years ahead now that they have been reinstated.

    [SCHOOL] should reach out to the state corrections department and/or Vera to learn how [SCHOOL] can serve students in prison. Two-year and four-year colleges are in high demand.

  2. Remove admissions questions about conviction history: No evidence has established a direct causal link between students with conviction histories and an increase in campus crime rates, but research does show that application questions about criminal legal system involvement deter formerly incarcerated potential students from applying to college.

    [SCHOOL] should follow the recommendations of the Biden administration and remove questions relating to criminal legal involvement in their admissions process. If this is not possible, [SCHOOL] should take steps to ensure the admissions process is evidence-based, transparent, and fair.

  3. Expand and improve supportive services for formerly incarcerated students: Formerly incarcerated students often face significant challenges. Some challenges are unique to their interaction with the criminal legal system, while others are also experienced by many first-generation students and students with low incomes.

    [SCHOOL] should follow the recommendations of the Biden administration and create a more welcoming campus for students of diverse backgrounds, including improving food, housing, childcare, mental health, academic, and employment services along with training staff to support the unique needs of formerly incarcerated students.

Expanding access to college in [STATE’S] prisons would have tremendous benefits both for communities statewide and for [SCHOOL’S] own campus community.

Research shows that access to college in prison improves students’ sense of self-worth as well as their employment and earning potential. It also makes correctional facilities safer and reduces the likelihood that someone will return to prison by 48 percent, thus saving taxpayer dollars which can be reallocated toward education and other public services.

Colleges greatly benefit, too. Professors often report that the classes they teach in prison are some of their most rewarding. Partnerships between colleges and departments of correction foster unique learning experiences, enabling students inside and outside prisons to connect with and learn from one another. Admissions officers may also find that programs in prison can create pipelines for enrolling individuals from marginalized communities, meaning many colleges can further fulfill their missions to cultivate diverse student bodies.

[OPTIONAL TEXT ABOUT WHY SCHOOL SHOULD GET INVOLVED IN THIS WORK]

Most people in prison are interested in pursuing postsecondary education while incarcerated. About two-thirds of people in prison are academically eligible to participate in a college program. The reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility for people in prison offers colleges a way to reach thousands of eager people who want to get a degree and presents an opportunity to reassess the existing institutional support for system-impacted students.

I urge [SCHOOL] to seize this opportunity and join the national movement of colleges expanding access to degrees behind bars and actively working to end mass incarceration.

Sincerely,

[NAME]

Use the suggested social posts and download the graphics below (or write your own message!) to share your support for creating a more inclusive campus community on social media. Don’t forget to replace “[@SCHOOL]” with the tag for your school’s account and include the hashtag, #EducationForAll.

everyone deserves access to education
college-in-prison programs expand employment opportunities, reduce recidivism, advance racial equity
postsecondary opportunities for incarcerated people open doors, but more importantly, they expand hearts and minds

Around 70 percent of four-year colleges in the United States require that applicants disclose prior experience with the criminal legal system. This practice doesn’t make campuses safer, but it does discourage potential students from applying.

Asking about conviction histories on college applications is one of many ways—including barriers to housing, employment opportunities, and so much more—that people with conviction histories continue to be punished even long after their involvement with the criminal legal system.

Change can come from individual school, state, or federal policy that prevents applications from asking about criminal legal system involvement.

Take action and add your name to call for an end to asking about conviction histories on college applications.

Take Action: Ban the Box in College Admissions

Everyone deserves a fair chance to access education. Asking prospective students to disclose prior experience with the criminal legal system in their college applications undermines this.

Yet most four-year colleges in the United States require this information, even though it deters potential applicants and doesn’t improve campus safety. Policies like this are unnecessary and make it difficult for people to move forward with their lives.

Schools across the country should ban the box in admissions and help ensure that people with conviction histories can pursue transformative education.

Add your name and help spread the word.

There are a variety of ways you can engage your campus community on these issues, either through your own outreach or with the help of a student organization.

  • Host a screening of College Behind Bars: This four-part documentary series follows a group of incarcerated students working toward getting their college degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative.
  • Write an op-ed in your school’s newspaper: Writing an op-ed on the need for a college-in-prison program or ways to better support justice-involved students can show other students and college administrators that this is an important issue for the community.
  • Volunteer or organize a fundraiser for a local reentry service provider: Reentry service providers, like Fortune Society in New York City and Operation Restoration in New Orleans, play a key role in helping support people returning from jails and prisons.

We’ve compiled a list of Vera resources to guide your advocacy on supporting justice-involved students and college-in-prison programs. It includes research and personal stories from students that you can share with your college administration to help them understand the need for these programs and services.

Watch this video to learn how college in prison changes lives

Restoring access to Pell Grants for incarcerated students is a victory that took decades of advocacy from formerly incarcerated leaders, colleges, corrections departments, and more. It is a cause to celebrate, but the work can’t stop here.

Advocating for schools to create new programs and services for justice-involved students brings us one step closer to a world where everyone has the opportunity to pursue high-quality education with the support they need to complete degree programs whether it is behind bars or in their community.

If you have any questions about this work, contact us at collegeinprison@vera.org.