Daniela Medina was in prison when she received an unexpected gift from Feather River College in Quincy, Calif. – a chance to take the GED she earned and turn it into something more. She was one of only 60 incarcerated women out of 3,000 who were given the chance to take courses at the college.
“I no longer felt like I was just incarcerated or an incarcerated person,” Medina said. “I felt like I was a scholar and part of the student body on a college campus.”
A few years later, she managed to parlay that opportunity into a bachelor’s degree in social welfare from the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated magna cum laude. She recently earned her master’s, proving the value of giving individuals a second chance.
Medina and several other former incarcerated individuals shared their remarkable comeback stories during a virtual roundtable session Tuesday with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. Cardona and the Biden Administration have showed their support to allow those in prison to carve a new path through education while receiving financial assistance through the Pell Grant program.
“I am so glad to be here to talk with you today and thank each of you for your willingness to share your stories with me,” Cardona said during the session. “College in prison programs have an important mission that I strongly believe in. I know how important teachers and professors are and the effect they have in all our life trajectories – and I want more incarcerated adults to have access to high-quality educational programs while they’re in prison.”
Since a historic December 2020 ruling brought college education hope back to incarcerated students, nearly 100 institutions now can award those grants through the Second Chance Pell Experiment. The Education Department is working to lift barriers further and increase their availability.
The students who spoke on Tuesday, including Medina, said it was imperative that higher education institutions continue to make those connections with states and prison systems to expand opportunities.
“I am inspired by what I’ve heard today about the importance of this issue and the continued need for access to Pell for incarcerated students,” Cardona said. “I am committed to ensuring that the Department works to serve currently and formerly incarcerated students well, and to increasing access to high-quality post-secondary education for these students.”
According to data released by the Vera Institute of Justice, nearly half of all incarcerated individuals who take college courses are “less likely to return to prison”. The FAFSA Simplification Act and the resulting Pell Grant eligibility is a win-win for those prospective students and the nation – the cost savings could be around $365 million per year if they are allowed to pursue those classes, the Vera Institute notes.