The biggest headlines about prison education this month focused on the restoration of New York’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), a need-based state financial aid program, for incarcerated students. In April, New York became the second state to repeal a state-wide ban for financial aid for people in prison. New Jersey put a similar law
into effect in 2020.
The move, along with the infusion of federal Pell dollars coming next year, will be a shot in the arm for prison education in New York, buoying existing programs with consistent funding and also creating opportunities for new programs, experts said.
New York’s move might also be a harbinger of things to come. “It is very much a milestone in the movement in state financial aid programs towards opening up and doing so ahead of Pell,” said Bradley Custer, senior policy analyst for higher education at the Center for American Progress.
In the wake of the crime bill that eliminated federal financial aid for people in prison, New York banned state financial aid for people in prison in 1995. As a result of the federal and state bans, New York went from having over 70 college-in-prison programs to four, said Dyjuan Tatro
, senior government affairs officer for the Bard Prison Initiative
(BPI), a private prison education program focused on liberal arts.
It was a pattern that was repeated across the country. As of 2019, only 17 states and the District of Columbia
had no legal or policy barriers prohibiting incarcerated students from applying for state financial aid, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
Following the ban in New York, nonprofit organizations such as BPI and Hudson Link
, which both started operation in the late 1990s, stepped in to fill the gap in higher education in prison. But as private programs operating in partnership with colleges, they have relied on private funding – and constant fundraising – in the absence of state support.
BPI currently operates in six prisons in New York and enrolls over 300 students. “Every year, we are in a precarious position,” Tatro said. “If we don’t have a steady public source to support education for people in prison at the scale that is mass incarceration in this country, our work is never going to be able to meet the demand or be sustainable.”
Tatro said that BPI will still need to fundraise above and beyond what is covered by grants, but the immediate availability of TAP and the restoration of Pell Grants for people in prison in 2023 will be a “shot in the arm” for existing prison education programs in New York. “This money coming back online first and foremost is going to add resources to a lot of programs that have been struggling to do this work.”
For Hudson Link, “the increased investment from the federal and state government allows us to stretch our privately raised funds to further build out program quality and a holistic approach to college-in-prison,” said Sean Pica, executive director. While college partners provide the academics, organizations like Hudson Link also offer services such as pre-college and college readiness courses, computer labs, tutoring, and reentry services.
Custer also anticipates the combination of TAP and Pell creating opportunities for new programs in New York. He noted that the recent changes in New York not only create access to TAP, but also all other state financial aid programs.
In theory, incarcerated students in New York will have access to the same state financial aid as any other state resident, but in practice, they will likely be limited by what programs are available at their particular facility. As of Spring 2021, more than 30 of New York’s 50 state prisons
(six of which were closed
in late 2021) offer at least an associate’s degree, according to the New York Consortium for Higher Education in Prison.
Tatro said that TAP is key to restoring educational equity to people who were excluded from educational opportunities even before they went to prison. “Our students at BPI, by and large, grew up in the roughest neighborhoods and went to the poorest schools,“ he said. "These are the individuals who this society should be giving the greatest access to education. And in New York, up until last week, it was the complete opposite.”