Prison Education Program is First in Nation to Receive Pell Grant Eligibility Under New Federal Policy

Founders Hall wide angle
Students enrolled in Cal Poly Humboldt's Bachelor of Arts in Communication at Pelican Bay State Prison can now receive Pell Grants, starting in Fall 2024. The program is the first in the nation to be approved for eligibility by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) under a new federal policy that went into effect last July.

The program is one of the first B.A. programs to be taught in person on a Level IV yard (a high-security facility) in California.

The program is a partnership between the University and its Project Rebound chapter, College of the Redwoods, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). The first cohort started this January with 16 students who previously completed their associate degrees through CR’s Pelican Bay Scholars Program.

Now, the students can pay for this programming with federal Pell Grants. For the first time in nearly 30 years—outside a limited pilot program known as the Second Chance Pell Experiment—individuals enrolled in approved prison education programs (PEPs) will be eligible for Federal Pell Grants, as a result of statutory changes enacted through the FAFSA Simplification Act. In order to receive the funds, the act—which went into effect in July 2023—“requires a ‘confined or incarcerated individual’ to enroll in an eligible PEP in order to access a Federal Pell Grant,” according to ED. 

“We congratulate Cal Poly Humboldt for being the first school in the country to be approved to provide a Pell eligible Prison Education Program inside of a correctional facility. Education has the power to transform lives, families, and communities and it opens doors to rewarding careers and meaningful civic engagement,” says Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education, Amy Loyd. “Access to these Pell Grants will give people who are incarcerated an opportunity to create a new vision and future for themselves by acquiring the knowledge, skills, and abilities to thrive and build better lives. We know that Cal Poly Humboldt is the first of many schools that will be leveraging this important funding stream to provide college in prison.”

The move helps increase access to education, and in turn lowers recidivism rates for many students who are confined or incarcerated.

“Education is a medicine for recidivism,” says Tony Wallin-Sato (Journalism, ‘20), program director of the Humboldt Project Rebound chapter, which is helping to jump-start the University’s B.A. program. 

Research from RAND Corporation shows that formerly incarcerated people are 43% less likely to reoffend and more likely to be employed when they participate in any type of PEP. Additionally, RAND found, “every dollar invested in correctional education saves nearly five in reincarceration costs over three years.” 

“College is transformative and a tremendously powerful rehabilitative tool—that’s why CDCR is committed to providing grade-school-to-grad school opportunities for all incarcerated individuals,” says Shannon Swain, Superintendent of Correctional Education for CDCR. “Pell Grants will allow even more students to access these life-changing programs and meet their goals. We are thrilled that our partners at Cal Poly Humboldt are leading the way in ensuring students housed at Pelican Bay State Prison can utilize these vital funds and look forward to seeing this access and programming blossom statewide.” 

“At Cal Poly Humboldt we define ourselves by who we include and not who we exclude,” says Jenn Capps, provost and vice president of Academic Affairs at Cal Poly Humboldt. “Creating access to education is one of our primary goals and launching the bachelor's degree at Pelican Bay, the first bachelor's degree in a Level IV yard in California, does just that—creates access to education, improves outcomes for people who are incarcerated and increases community safety.”