FAFSA: An Inconvenient Truth

INTRODUCTION

In colleges across the country students desiring financial assistance are required to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This application, as its name suggests, is used to determine who qualifies for federal student aid and how much. Pell Grants and other need-based aid are assessed according to the FAFSA results.

It's not only federal student aid which is awarded through the FAFSA. State-based and even private-based forms of student aid are awarded based upon FAFSA results. The whole system, while diverse, is primarily based upon this single application.

HISTORY

Prior to 1994, incarcerated students followed the same process as non-incarcerated students when seeking student aid. Overwhelmingly, the kind of student aid to be awarded was in the form of need-based Pell Grants. It should be noted that the awarded funds at no time went to the incarcerated student, but directly to the institution providing the higher education. Also, at no time were death-row prisoners or those serving life sentences eligible to participate.

Sadly, public and political sentiment shifted against prisoners attempting to better themselves through higher education. Politicians could be heard lamenting how prisoners were receiving a free taxpayer-supported education. They, and others, could be heard making incorrect and inflammatory statements against prison education programs which tarnished the reputation of incarcerated students and prison educators alike.

The end result of this unjust public and political out lash was the passing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1993, and the Higher Education Reauthorization Act of 1994. These Acts restricted federal student aid to prisoners, a move which decimated the prison education culture and environment of the 1980s and early 1990s. Within weeks, the vast majority of the 350 in-prison college programs collapsed due to a lack of funding.

The legislative slashing of prison education funding wouldn't have been so debilitating had the prison demographic been different. But with the majority of prisoners residing in a low socioeconomic status, higher education was effectively legislated out of reach. No longer was this disenfranchised group able to march out of poverty as the immigrant groups before them.

 

CURRENT POST-SECONDARY PRISON EDUCATION CLIMATE

In the current wasteland of the once great prison education culture there presently exist a hodgepodge of opportunities, very few of which involve college-level learning. The primary method of post-secondary correctional education that remains is that of correspondence college courses. For many incarcerated students this is the only option available. Though, funding is an issue since these courses must be paid for by the incarcerated student or their family, a cost of several hundred dollars apiece. Hence, this is not a viable option for the vast majority of the incarcerated population.

In the post-Pell Grant world for the incarcerated student, most consider financial aid to be out. The common belief is that since Congress restricted federal student aid from the incarcerated, all student aid has been rescinded. To put it bluntly: This is not the case. Congress' actions only restricted federal-based student aid, not state-based or private-based student aid. These diverse designations of student aid bring the problem at hand to light, and provide hope, too.

THE PROBLEM

The catastrophic problem with this general "complete repeal” is that it has caused colleges and incarcerated students alike to give up on the idea of student aid for the incarcerated. This in effect manifests itself as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since both members of the transaction believe something to be true, what is not true then becomes true to them. In this circumstance, this means that if both groups believe financial aid to be restricted, even if it is available, it will not be utilized because of the common misbelief. This is what is potentially occurring in schools across the country when dealing with incarcerated students.

The problem and solution lie in the FAFSA. The primary means of obtaining any form of student aid (federal, state, or private) is through filling out the FAFSA. Colleges, under the impression that Congress' legislation restricted incarcerated students from receiving any form of student aid, automatically inform their incarcerated students that student aid isn't available to them. Hence, they don't allow their incarcerated students to fill out the FAFSA or other financial aid applications which would show the truth of the matter.

The problem with not filling out the FAFSA is that, even if funding is available, both the incarcerated student and academic advisor can't become aware of it. What makes matters even worse is that the incarcerated student isn't even in communication with the financial aid office, but the admissions office or the incarcerated student's academic advisor. Hence, the expert in this situation - the financial aid counselor - is removed from their vital role of obtaining funding for students who come from a low socioeconomic background. This is all because of the shared misbelief that incarcerated students are not eligible for any student aid, a most grievous error to those in prison who are attempting to make amends through obtaining an education.

THE SOLUTION

Ever since Congress legislated away federal-based financial aid to incarcerated students, the plight of the incarcerated student who seeks a higher education has been a tough one. This fact has been emphasized even more in recent months with the defunding of the Incarcerated Individuals Program, an institutional source of funding for higher education in American prisons. Hence, everything possible needs to be done to utilize and maximize current sources of funding for higher education in American prisons. The answer isn't to fight the system, but to utilize it. We don't need to reinvent the wheel, but to employ it as its designers intended.

If the vast majority of student aid is awarded based upon the FAFSA, then the FAFSA needs to be utilized to see what the truth of the matter is in each individual situation. This means making the FAFSA a required part of every incarcerated student's enrollment process. It also needs to be utilized each and every time the incarcerated student signs up for new classes so that if new funding is available it can be found and utilized.This way, the incarcerated student, regardless of which college they are attending, will have the tools they need to pay for their classes, and succeed in higher education and life after prison.

The simple truth is that the current model needs local revision, not global. Hence, the incarcerated student needs to follow what the non-incarcerated student does. If the non-incarcerated college student fills out a FAFSA before each semester, then the incarcerated student should do so, too. If the non-incarcerated student seeks financial aid at certain pre-determined points in time, then the incarcerated student should do so also. This simple modification would alleviate the whole issue at hand and potentially allow incarcerated students - students stricken with poverty and an almost uniform lack of formal education - to lift themselves out of the unfortunate existence in which they currently reside.

CONCLUSION

Financial aid is not exclusively federal-based, state-based, or private-based. It is a mix of the three. Hence, some grants are available to those who qualify nationwide, while other grants are available for a particular state, county, city, or even particular school. And still other grants are based upon areas of study, personal attributes, ability to pay, or even familial history. It is a wide web with many possibilities, providing hope to those who can't afford to pay for a college education.

The cautionary part is that there very well might not be student aid at a particular college for which an incarcerated student could qualify. Then again, there might be. With the cost to check being free, it seems awfully expensive to not do so.

About the Author: Christopher Zoukis is the author of Education Behind Bars, a prison education text being published by Sunbury Press in December of 2011. He's also a two-time 2011 PEN American Center award winning author (Drama and Fiction). Go to PrisonEducation.com for more on his advocacy work.