Challenges related to higher education affordability have been broadly publicized for the past several decades. According to data from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the average price of tuition, fees, and room and board for undergraduate degrees increased 169% between 1980 and 2020. In just the past decade, student loan debt increased by nearly 80%.
Affordability challenges are particularly impactful for incarcerated students. Research from the Prison Policy Initiative found that the average net worth of incarcerated people prior to incarceration is 41% less than non-incarcerated people. Wages from in-prison employment range between 86 cents and $4.73 per day and prison jobs are still completely unpaid in at least five states.
Most significantly, for the past 28 years, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students have had drastically limited access to most financial aid and scholarship programs. Prison education programs grew considerably after the passage of the Higher Education Act of 1965. In fact, the number of college-in-prison programs doubled between 1982 and the early 1990s. However, incarcerated students were prohibited from applying for federal aid in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. In the absence of federal financial aid, college-in-prison programs declined rapidly. Prior to the ban, there were over 770 college-in-prison programs across the country; three years after the ban, just eight were operating. The closure of college-in-prison programs had a dramatic impact on college attainment rates for incarcerated individuals. In 2004, just 7.3% of state prisoners had taken a college course while in prison, down from 13.9% in 1991. By 2018, just 4% of higher education institutions offered credit courses for students in prison.
Additional barriers to financial aid access while incarcerated create challenges for students. Completing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for either federal or state financial aid programs is often difficult for imprisoned students who generally lack internet access and may struggle to obtain required tax verification documents. Additionally, incarcerated students may not necessarily qualify for residency status and be able to obtain in-state tuition, which is significantly more affordable.