During his fourth year inside Fulton County, Georgia's correctional system, Larry Jackson became the subject of an experiment in prison education.

The facility needed more medical help, so it started training its incarcerated population. He earned a nursing assistant certification for free and worked primarily as an orderly for the system. But the program was eventually disbanded. By the time Jackson, who entered the system at age 23, was released in 2016, at age 38, his credential had expired, giving him almost nothing to show for his work.

Now, a bipartisan group of advocates hopes people in Jackson's situation will benefit from a provision tucked into the 5,600-page federal spending bill Congress passed late last year. It lifted a 26-year-old ban that blocked people who are incarcerated from receiving Pell Grants, federal aid for undergraduates with high financial need. While few people who are incarcerated have college credentials, many have indicated they want to grow their education while behind bars. The expansion builds on Second Chance Pell, a pilot program that gave financial aid to about 17,000 incarcerated students from 2016 to 2019.

"If I had access to that, I could have gotten a degree that didn't expire," Jackson said.

Proponents of the change, which goes into effect by mid-2023, hope it will enable more people to access higher education while incarcerated. But they note that its implementation presents a variety of challenges, which include addressing limitations that kept the pilot narrow and avoiding the abuse of federal dollars by seeking more transparency.

Even with more federal support, there are significant hurdles to increasing college access among incarcerated students. Some of these were pointed out in a 2019 Congressional report evaluating a potential expansion, which also bemoaned the "little research on the best way to deliver postsecondary education in prisons."

For one, only about two-thirds of incarcerated people have a high school diploma or its equivalent, the Vera Institute notes, a prerequisite for college classes. Even then, correctional systems and facilities may have additional rules. In New Jersey, for instance, students in solitary confinement can't participate, Agans said.

Other factors that could disqualify potential students include having previously defaulted on student loans and being unable to gather the necessary documentation to apply for financial aid.

The correctional facilities themselves are often a barrier. "Pretty much every room in the prison is the wrong space," Agans said. "They're built for security."

Read the full article about expanding college access by Joy Resmovits at Higher Education News.