As the Obama administration stands ready to announce plans to open up Pell Grant eligibility to inmates, one group in particular is working to funnel more former inmates and gang members into college.
“Just because someone’s been locked up, just because they may be gang-involved doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have incredibly high expectations for these individuals or that we shouldn’t put forth every effort into getting them to and through college,” said Mark Culliton, CEO of College Bound Dorchester, an organization that works with high school dropouts and former gang members to get them into community college.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday in a speech about increasing access to higher education that “experimental sites” will begin allowing incarcerated individuals to be eligible for federal Pell Grants to take college courses.
Culliton says the move to educate those who have been incarcerated is critical to the forward progress of the nation’s economy and the security of individual neighborhoods.
“There’s this lost group of young people—6.7 million in this country right now—that are not engaged in college, not working” and generally not productively contributing to society but who are creating problems for the local communities in which they live, he said.
John Smith-St. Cyere said he didn’t think about the choices he was making as a youth in Dorchester.
“I just wasn’t really thinking about anything, really,” he said. “I never really thought about going to college. I never thought about anything, outside of my neighborhood—or myself, really.”
Without the realization that “my choices have an impact on my family, my community,” Smith-St. Cyere dropped out of high school and, he said, “went to jail a couple of times.” Eventually, he linked up with College Bound Dorchester and began working toward his associate’s degree, which he completed in 2013.
He is cautiously enthusiastic about the president’s plan to make inmates Pell grant-eligible, as well as programs like the one in which he participated and others around higher education that provide an opportunity for individuals like himself to move forward. Such efforts, he said, provide “an opportunity to highlight or shed some type of light on the forgotten.”
“As a Black male growing up in America, I don’t want to say you’re invisible, because you’ll definitely be recognized if you do something wrong,” but Black males are often ignored outside of negative attention, said Smith-St. Cyere.
“Just because you’ve been incarcerated, just because you’ve made the wrong choices doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to pursue an education,” he said.
Thus, the College Bound Dorchester program is “driven by this idea that there’s this small group of disengaged young people that don’t make it in any programs and don’t make it in any schools … so the rest of the people in the community are under the influence of these young people,” whom Culliton calls “core influencers.” If the College Bound Dorchester staff can encourage this population and help them get into school, “they can not only help themselves, but have the possibility of transforming neighborhoods throughout the country,” he said.
The Obama administration’s plan builds on recommendations made by the president’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force and the joint DOE/DOJ Correctional Educational Guidance Package. The Department of Education will solicit proposals from institutions that want to create pilot programs to begin offering courses to inmates.
“The Administration believes equipping incarcerated individuals with the skills they need to successfully reenter the community is one of the most powerful—and cost-effective methods to ensure they avoid future contact with the justice system and become productive members of society,” said a department official via email.
“You can’t do much without a college degree,” said Smith-St. Cyere. “With [just] a high school diploma, you can’t provide for a family,” he added, emphasizing the critical need for society not to give up on students who have had some challenges.
Culliton believes that this population of students needs to be treated even more gingerly than some of those thought of as traditional students.
“It is increasingly challenging to engage this group of young people because they’ve been failed so often,” he said.
Not only that, because “oftentimes [these students] have dropped out, … we have to get them their GED first,” Culliton added. In some cases, “some may have a high school credential, but they’re clearly not ready for college-level courses.”
According to a 2013 RAND study, inmates who participated in remedial, career training and/or post-secondary courses were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years. But Culliton said the goal is not just to enter students into remedial or vocational courses but to get them down the road of higher education via an associate’s degree.
“We understand that it’s … not a linear process,” he said. “Many times, students may get into trouble or get locked up again” while they are working with staff to get to the level they need to be on to even enroll in community college. But part of the crux of the College Bound Dorchester program is the intent to “stay with them and get them into college” in spite of the environmental obstacles they face, he said.
Smith-St. Cyere has returned to “pay it forward” with College Bound Dorchester as a College Readiness Advisor and has a 1-year old daughter whom he said is also a “College Bound baby”; she attends the on-site daycare.
For students like himself, Smith-St. Cyere said it is important that people realize “they’re valuable, just like those students who got straight A’s and went to Harvard. They just had different circumstances.”