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Why Supporting Financial Aid Administrators Is Key to Unlocking Opportunities for Incarcerated Learners

June 29, 2023 3-minute read
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4 justice involved men in a classroom focusing on a teacher in the front of the roomOn July 1, incarcerated learners regained the opportunity to receive Pell Grants for the first time in 29 years. This is a landmark moment, but it has not come easily. Among the many challenges of preparing for Pell Grant reinstatement is bringing financial aid administrators up to speed so that they can help both incarcerated learners and institutions utilize this funding stream. That includes preparing them to help incarcerated learners fill out a paper Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the form used to determine Pell Grant eligibility. This process typically takes place online for non-incarcerated learners.

“Using the paper FAFSA causes a significant slowdown in processing financial aid,” says Jerry McKeen, financial aid director at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC). While the ends certainly justify the means, the need for staff to manually enter data into the federal system can leave financial aid offices overburdened and the susceptible to human error.

Another challenge is a lack of direct, interactive communication with incarcerated learners, which can result in questions being unasked or a misinterpretation of directions. “Failure to have quick, constructive contact can cause errors, confusion, delays, and ultimately frustration for both students and school staff,” McKeen says.

Fortunately, there are ongoing efforts to help financial aid professionals support incarcerated learners. We recently provided the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) with a grant to give technical assistance to financial aid officers and directors of prison education programs. As part of this initiative, NASFAA will:

  • Launch a Prison Education and Pell Grant Eligibility web center hosting up-to-date information and guidance for financial aid offices and program administrators.
  • Host training webinars aimed at supporting incarcerated learners through the financial aid application process.
  • Develop new resources, such as FAQs and toolkits, to provide practitioners with need-to-know information about supporting incarcerated learners through the financial aid process.

Through our intermediary grant partner Jobs for the Future (JFF), we are also providing 22 state systems and colleges — including DMACC — with support via our Ready for Pell initiative. As a Ready for Pell participant, DMACC received financial support, as well as technical assistance, to strengthen postsecondary education programs within Iowa prisons and build capacity to maximize the full reinstatement of Pell Grants for eligible students.

These initiatives continue Ascendium’s support of the financial aid community. They also help professionals like McKeen navigate some of the thornier issues around Pell Grant reinstatement.

“[The technical assistance] has been helpful in clarifying regulations and best practices as we try to streamline and improve delivery of our services,” says McKeen. “Having a centralized resource [such as JFF] to support participating institutions is beneficial to ensuring we keep up with evolving regulatory standards.”

Looking for tips for administering financial aid for incarcerated students? Create a free account to watch NASFAA’s recent webinar on the topic now!