A-B Tech touts Pell grant experiment; only post-secondary school in the state to do it

Published in the Asheville Citizen-Times, June 20, 2022 

The mission of the Second Chance Pell Experiment is in the name: It’s about providing second chances. Specifically, it allows participating post-secondary institutions to disperse Pell Grants to inmates and prison facilities, a financial aid option previously barred to this population since 1994.

In North Carolina, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College is currently the only post-secondary institution in the state participating in this experimental program. On May 17, A-B Tech graduated six participants from Craggy Correctional Center, the first Second Chance Pell graduation in the state.

“I’ve always thought of community college as a second chance institution for many individuals,” said Dr. Gene Loflin, associate vice president of Instructional Services at A-B Tech. “To me, it just made sense for us to be part of a second chance experiment.”

Participants at Western Correctional Center for Woman also saw great success this year, Loflin said. All 11 students made either the President’s List or the Dean’s List.

The success of this experimental program in North Carolina and across the country has allowed for a third-round expansion, effective July 1. In mid-April, the U.S. Department of Education announced 73 additional post-secondary institutions were invited to participate in the program, increasing the total number of participating institutions to 200.

Campbell University, Shaw University and Robeson Community College will be joining A-B Tech in North Carolina.

The Department of Education also announced that the Biden-Harris administration will reinstate access to Pell Grants for all incarcerated students starting July 1, 2023.

The Pell Grant is a need-based financial aid option awarded to undergraduate students “who display exceptional financial need,” as stated on the Federal Student Aid website. For the last 27 years, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 barred incarcerated students from accessing Pell Grants, effectively decreasing the number of individuals accessing in-prison education programs throughout the country.

In 2015, the Obama administration introduced the Second Chance Pell Experiment. A-B Tech was invited to participate in the second round of the experiment in March 2020.

A-B Tech is not new to in-prison education, said Loflin. A-B Tech’s prior experience running in-prison education programs was a major contributing factor in its being the first post-secondary institution in the state chosen to participate in Second Chance Pell.

Prior to 2011, individuals in prison facilities in North Carolina could take college courses with tuition waived, said Loflin. When the waiver was removed, A-B Tech received funding from the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving justice systems, to provide programming at both Western and Craggy. Despite the funding running out and the programs closing, the experience gained was vital for navigating Second Chance Pell.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety contacted prisons across the state to recruit interested individuals, said Loflin. If those interested in the program met the criteria needed, they would be transferred to Craggy or Western, where A-B Tech programs are offered. Students at Craggy earn an Associate of Applied Science in Electrical Systems Technology while students at Western earn an Associate of Applied Science in Human Services Technology as well as a certification in Substance Abuse and Drug Counseling.

Craggy graduate Joshua Lipe, 41, transferred from Maury Correctional Institution after writing a letter to Craggy expressing interest in the program. “There’s probably no way I could afford to go to college right down the street. … This right here is a great, great opportunity.”

The program started with 24 participants — 12 at Craggy and 12 at Western.

“We wanted to start off small and get it right first,” Loflin said. “The whole thing is to do it, learn from it and then grow it slowly but successfully.”

The experimental nature of the program has allowed A-B Tech to find solutions when obstacles arise, creating room to iron out the proverbial kinks of the program. Yet from the onset of college’s approval to participate in Second Chance Pell, they were faced with a very obtrusive obstacle — COVID-19.

Programming for Second Chance Pell was delayed until fall 2021 due to restrictions on entry into the prisons, Loflin said.

Craggy graduate Vernon Toomer, 49, said that when classes did finally begin it was a little slow: “By being the first students we were kind of limited at first, but they got it going and it was great.”

A-B Tech professors and instructors provide face-to-face instruction in classrooms on site. One key difference between both programs is students at Craggy have access to technology while students at Western do not.   

“The 1980s called, and they want their class back,” joked Jessica Keener, 35, a student at Western. Keener said that lack of technology decreases the number of resources she and her fellow classmates have access to for school assignments. It also forces her instructors to be more creative in the classroom.  

Despite the challenges, motivation to participate in and complete the program are strong. “I wanted to be able to leave prison with something positive, and I felt like this two-year degree would be that,” said Angela Campbell, 50, a student at Western.

According to research conducted by the Rand Corp., “Inmates who participate in correctional education programs had a 43% lower odds of recidivating than those who did not.” In-prison education programs are also “associated with higher employment rates” upon reentry.

Yet, possibly more important than the benefits in-prison education programs have on public safety is the individual impact it has on students and the ones who support.

“It’s very nice to complete something — that you finished something that you’ve started. That’s what made me so happy about (graduating),” said Lipe.

Students at Western are expected to graduate in May 2023. Keener said that one of the most rewarding parts about participating in Second Chance Pell is the uplifting nature of the program.

“We always remember that we’re in prison," she said. "Escape is a bad word around here, but I always say that going into the classroom helps me escape my day-to-day reality that I am incarcerated.”

MyFutureNC is an organization as well as a statewide initiative with the goal of having 2 million North Carolinians in possession of a post-secondary degree by 2030 to reach workforce needs. Students participating in Second Chance Pell and other in-prison education programs are vital to reaching this goal, said Loflin.

“We’re investing in our students in these facilities no differently than we invest in every student who comes to our college. This is just another group of students that we serve that just can’t come to us.”



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