How Does College Prison Accreditation Work?


Published March 1, 2023 · 3 Min Read

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Prison education programs provide higher ed opportunities to incarcerated people. Accreditation ensures these programs meet quality standards.
Woman speaking to three inmates Credit: Thinkstock / Stockbyte / Getty Images

There is at least one higher education institution in almost every U.S. state, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C., offering educational opportunities for incarcerated people, including everything from vocational training to full-fledged degree programs. Delaware, Kentucky, and Montana are the only states that don't provide these opportunities.

Providing these opportunities is one thing — making sure they're accredited is another. Accreditation ensures that incarcerated students receive a quality education that will better support their pursuit of higher education and employment outside incarceration.

What Are Prison Education Programs?

Prison education programs (PEPs) are educational opportunities for incarcerated people.

Options include noncredit workshops, vocational training, and degree programs. Most of these programs are taught on site by instructors from local colleges. They function similarly to campus-based classrooms.

Examples of PEPs

Are All Prison College Programs Accredited?

Currently, 200 U.S. higher education institutions — only 4% of all degree-granting colleges and universities in the country — provide credit-bearing education in at least one prison.

Most of these institutions hold regional accreditation, and fewer than 10 hold national accreditation. Of the two types of institutional accreditation, regional accreditation is generally considered more prestigious.

Collectively, these schools are served by 10 accreditation agencies.

Almost one-third of the institutions offering credit-bearing courses in prisons are located in California, New York, and Texas. Meanwhile, Delaware, Kentucky, and Montana do not offer any PEPs, depriving over 33,000 people of accessing higher education while incarcerated.

Additionally, colleges are not required to start the accreditation process until it is likely that students are or will be close to completing 50% or more of an academic credential, meaning newer PEPs may not be accredited right away.

When it comes to noncredit courses and workshops, incarcerated students don't need to worry about institutional accreditation as they won't receive academic credit.

Why Is College Accreditation Important for Prison Programs?

College accreditation is important because it sets quality standards and helps differentiate legitimate institutions from diploma mills and other low-quality schools awarding unrecognized degrees.

Institutions must undergo a lengthy accreditation process for students to earn transferable credits and legitimate degrees, prepare for licensure, and receive federal financial aid.

Prison education programs need to be accredited for all the same reasons. Without accreditation, incarcerated students can't use credits earned in these PEPs to qualify for professional licenses and employment.

They also can't use unaccredited PEP work to earn degrees widely considered legitimate and cannot apply their credits toward degree-granting institutions outside the prison system. They won't be eligible for federal student aid either.

What Is the FAFSA Simplification Act?

A 1994 ban prohibited the use of Pell Grants for PEPs, leading to the collapse of the majority of PEPs.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education established the Second Chance Pell (SCP) initiative, restoring Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated students at 67 institutions. That number increased to 130 in 2020 and to 200 in 2022.

Between 2016 and 2021, over 28,000 students enrolled in PEPs through the SCP experiment — and more than 9,000 of them earned a degree, certificate, or diploma.

These numbers demonstrated that access to federal funding and the Pell Grant improved institutions' willingness and ability to provide credit-bearing educational programs in prisons.

The SCP experiment led to the passing of the FAFSA Simplification Act as part of the 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act. The FAFSA Simplification Act reinstated Pell Grant eligibility to all incarcerated students, allowing them to enroll in approved PEPs.

The act also required that PEPs meet Title IV eligibility requirements and FAFSA-established requirements, making it more likely that PEPs will meet the high-quality standards needed for accreditation.

The FAFSA Simplification Act and Pell Grant eligibility restoration will go into effect in July 2023.

Higher education institutions, prisons, and accreditation agencies need to collaborate to ensure the successful implementation of quality PEPs. That collaboration will be key for students to maximize the benefits of the FAFSA Simplification Act.

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