Washington Watch: Final prisoner ed regs reflect community college views


The U.S. Education Department’s (ED) final regulations for new Pell Grant eligibility has set the parameters for this important new eligibility for community colleges. 

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) had submitted detailed comments on the proposed rules and in some key areas AACC’s comments were reflected in ED’s final version. In particular, the department backed away from requiring state “oversight entities” (i.e., state departments of corrections or other similar agencies) to mandate that institutions report, and agencies subsequently evaluate, a variety of quantitative measures related to their prison education programs. 

These changes are particularly significant because the proposed rule had garnered “consensus” in the negotiated-rulemaking sessions preceding publication of the proposed rule, and regulators are usually predisposed to retain all features of proposed rules that have this status.

Points of concern

In its regulatory submission, AACC generally took issue with requirements that were not required by the law and therefore represented what the association argued was an unnecessary or inappropriate regulatory mandate. More importantly from AACC’s perspective, several of the proposed requirements would have required institutions to engage in costly information gathering of questionable utility in the agencies’ designated role.

Areas where ED softened its proposed regulatory framework included earnings (with a specific earnings standards needing to be set), placement rates, the continuation in postsecondary education of released individuals, and faculty retention for those teaching prisoners.  

These changes aside, corrections agencies retain a critical role in the new eligibility framework for prison education. Institutions wishing to offer Pell grants to incarcerated individuals will have to be approved by the state entity, which is required to determine whether the program is “in the best interest” of individuals. Stakeholders have a designated role in providing input into this decision, so it will not be made in isolation by state corrections bodies.

Accreditation, federal role

As outlined in the statute and accompanying regulations, accreditors also have a key role in approving prison education programs. They must evaluate prison education programs at the first two additional locations where institutions offer education, with a site visit occurring no more than one year after the program has begun. ED also has a major role in collecting information on the prison education programs and subsequently approving programs.

The new law takes effect July 1, 2023. Many institutions are already preparing for this new opportunity, and in many places, new competition. Please contact AACC if you would like more information or would like to share your perspective on this new eligibility. 

About the Author

David Baime
David Baime is senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.
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