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NJ-STEP Partners, RU-N and RVCC, Will Participate in U.S. DOE’s Second Chance Pell Pilot Program

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The Department of Education announced today that Rutgers University–Newark (RU-N) is among 67 colleges and universities selected to participate in the new Second Chance Pell pilot program, an experiment announced in July 2015 to test whether participation in high quality education programs increases after expanding access to financial aid for incarcerated individuals. The pilot program will allow eligible incarcerated Americans to receive Pell Grants and pursue postsecondary education with the goal of helping them get jobs and support their families when they are released. Today’s announcement builds on the Obama Administration’s commitment to create a fairer and more effective criminal justice system, reduce recidivism, and combat the impact of mass incarceration on families and communities through educational opportunity, all of which President Barack Obama addressed during his visit to RU-N in November 2015.

RU-N will administer its Second Chance Pell program through the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) program. NJ-STEP, a statewide initiative managed by RU-N, works in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the State Parole Board, and a network of public and private, two- and four-year colleges to provide higher education courses to eligible individuals who are incarcerated in one of New Jersey’s seven correctional facilities. The program also assists in the transition to college life of released students who demonstrate they are college-ready and eager to improve their lives. NJ-STEP is not a state-funded program, which means it does not derive its revenues from taxpayer dollars. All of its financial support comes from private donors.

Tiyana Beckom earned her associates of arts degree last summer from Raritan Valley Community College through the NJ-STEP program and now attends Rutgers University-Newark. Like many other NJ-STEP participants and alumni, she is forever grateful for the program’s life-changing effects.

“NJ-STEP gave me a sense of liberation behind bars. When I entered the prison I was ashamed, I gave up and felt sorry for myself.  I knew when people looked at me I would wear the stigma of my felony. When I started taking classes, my self-image changed,” recalled Beckom, who was incarcerated at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women.

“NJ-STEP was a real college. Our instructors gave us respect and love and really worked to provide us every opportunity to earn our degree[s], without ever judging our past or our academic struggles. Being in classes with encouraging faculty gave me a voice I never had before and a glimpse into the lifestyles and attitudes of educated people. All of the women in my classes shared a new outlook on who we were--we began to define ourselves by our current knowledge and ability, not our past actions. Now, people don't look at me as a felon, they look at me as someone who goes to college.”

The United States currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world with approximately 2.2 million people incarcerated in American prisons and jails. Hundreds of thousands of individuals are released annually from these facilities. A 2013 study from the RAND Corporation, funded by the Department of Justice, found that incarcerated individuals who participated in correctional education were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than prisoners who did not participate in any correctional education programs. RAND also estimated that for every dollar invested in correctional education programs, four to five dollars are saved on three-year re-incarceration costs.

“The evidence is clear. Promoting the education and job training for incarcerated individuals makes communities safer by reducing recidivism and saves taxpayer dollars by lowering the direct and collateral costs of incarceration,” said U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. “I applaud the institutions that have partnered to develop high-quality programs that will equip these students with invaluable learning. The knowledge and skills they acquire will promote successful reintegration and enable them become active and engaged citizens.”

Selected colleges and universities will partner with 141 federal and state penal institutions to enroll roughly 12,000 incarcerated students in educational and training programs. Through the Second Chance Pell pilot program, these institutions may provide Federal Pell Grants to qualified students who are incarcerated and are likely to be released within five years of enrolling in coursework.

“Access to high quality education is vital to ensuring that justice-involved individuals have an opportunity to reclaim their lives and restore their futures,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “Through this partnership with the Department of Education and institutions of higher learning around the country, this program will help give deserving incarcerated individuals the skills to live lives of purpose and contribute to society upon their release. The Department of Justice will continue to pursue additional efforts to reduce recidivism, promote opportunity, and give justice-involved individuals a meaningful second chance.”

The vast majority of selected schools are public two-year and public four-year institutions that will offer classroom-based instruction on-site at the corrections facilities. Others will offer online education, or a hybrid of classroom and online instruction. More than 10 percent of participating educational institutions are minority-serving institutions and approximately 37 percent will offer prison-based education for the first time. Selected schools may begin offering education and training as early as July 1.

Strong Partnerships between Postsecondary Institutions and Correctional Institutions

The selected sites all demonstrate strong partnerships between the postsecondary institution and correctional institution(s). These partnerships will help to facilitate high-quality educational programs, strong academic and career support services, and reentry support. Many state departments of corrections indicated strong support for the proposed postsecondary educational programs at both the leadership level and in the coordination of day-to-day operations such as scheduling, staffing, and facilities.

Robust Academic, Career, and Social Support Services

Recognizing that incarcerated students require additional support, many of the selected sites provide robust academic, career, and social support services to facilitate postsecondary persistence and completion. In some cases, this includes remedial or supplementary instructional services to ensure the incarcerated students served will be able to benefit from the postsecondary education and/or training provided. Many partnerships also work with a variety of community-based organizations and non-profit organizations that support successful reentry. Finally, all of the sites will provide counseling or guidance to potential students to assist them in completing the FAFSA.

A Focus on Reentry

The selected sites demonstrated a focus on supporting successful reentry. Many did this by evaluating the local labor market and providing educational programs that would prepare students with the training and credentials to improve their prospects for employment post-release. Others offer educational programs that result in meaningful degrees that prepare students to continue their postsecondary education. Through partnerships with the correctional institutions, community-based organizations, local non-profits and foundations, the selected postsecondary institutions will enable, prepare, and support incarcerated students in reentering society as productive and engaged citizens.

College Affordability

Many of the selected postsecondary institutions are ensuring college affordability and access for students during and after incarceration by making available institution-based financial aid and supporting students in applying for available state-based aid.

Secretary King will join fellow cabinet members in a moderated discussion that will explore Administration-wide efforts to promote reintegration and rehabilitation, and reduce recidivism among justice-involved individuals. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro and U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez will also participate in the discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress.

The Second Chance Pell pilot program builds upon previous Administration efforts and responds to recommendations put forth by the President’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force to promote successful alternatives to incarceration and eliminate unnecessary barriers to reentry. Last month, the Department of Education released the Beyond the Box Resource guide for colleges and universities that encourages alternatives to inquiring about criminal histories during college admissions and provides recommendations to support a holistic review of applicants. Earlier this year, the Department of Education, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice, announced $5.7 million in new grants aimed at improving outcomes for students who have been involved in the criminal justice system. In December 2014, the Departments of Education and Justice released a Correctional Education Guidance Package to improve education programs in juvenile justice facilities and clarified existing rules around Pell Grant eligibility for youth housed in juvenile justice facilities and individuals held in local and county jails. The pilot announced today is intended to build on this guidance and expand access to high-quality postsecondary educational opportunities and support the successful reentry of adults.

Experimental sites, such as the Second Chance Pell pilot program, allow the Department of Education to test innovative practices in the delivery of Pell Grant dollars and use the resulting evidence to inform improvements in policies and processes in federal student aid. Under the experimental sites authority of section 487A(b) of the Higher Education Act (HEA), Secretary King will waive existing financial aid rules that prohibit otherwise eligible students who are incarcerated from accessing Pell Grants. A 1994 congressional change to the HEA eliminated Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals in federal and state penal institutions.

Photos:

Top: NJ-STEP staff (l-r): Jerri Flippen, El-Shabaz Abulah, Margaret Quern Atkins, June Tamburro, Christopher Agans, Hajaaminatu Kamara (NJ-STEP alumna), Adrian Backus, Jeff Melillo, and Thomas Holmes

Left: Tiyana Beckom