This story is published in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education. Subscribe to College Inside, an Open Campus newsletter on the future of postsecondary education in prison.
Like 40 million other Americans, Sakina Shakur is anxiously awaiting the Supreme Court’s impending decision on President Biden’s proposal to cancel student loan debt. She would potentially have more than half of the $32,000 she owes forgiven.
But until just a few months ago Shakur couldn’t just pick up the phone or go online when she wanted information about her student loans. Instead, she had to rely on the U.S. Postal Service and 15-minute calls with family members to help her navigate a byzantine maze of loan servicers and federal student aid agencies.
Shakur didn’t have easy access to her loan information because she had spent more than 13 years as a resident of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Her loans went into default when she couldn’t make payments after she was incarcerated in 2009.
That’s all about to change for people inside. Last week, the Education Department released new information about how to access a “fresh start”—the policy that will bring all eligible defaulted loans into good standing—online, on the phone, or via mail. The latter is important because it’s often the only way that people in prison can communicate with the outside world. And, it offers a way to get some relief, while thousands of incarcerated borrowers wait to hear whether their student loans will be forgiven.
Last September, Shakur wrote me a letter informing me she’d been receiving College Inside, my newsletter about prison education. “I am waiting for the one where you tell me about this new student loan situation now that Biden has done something,” she wrote. “You know we have to rely on our media platforms to tell us the real on how this affects our demographic…The forgiveness process is also unknown.”
In August 2022, President Biden announced a plan that would forgive up to $20,000 per borrower. That plan has been on hold since October when lawsuits tied the proposal up in federal court. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases at the end of February. A final decision on forgiveness is expected in June.
We don’t know how many people in prison are also student loan borrowers because the government doesn’t track that. But we do know that nearly one-third of all borrowers have debt but no degree, according to the Education Department. That’s been the case for almost every single incarcerated borrower I’ve talked to, including Shakur.
And, while only 4 percent of formerly incarcerated people have a college degree, nearly 20 percent of them have some college, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
For Shakur, finding out how she might benefit from student debt cancellation had taken on new urgency because she would be going home just two months later, in November 2022. She wanted to go back to college once she was out, but worried that her defaulted student loans might prevent her from doing so.
She knew that borrowers in default were ineligible for federal financial aid, including Pell Grants, the main form of aid for low-income students. In the past, defaulted student loans have been one of the biggest challenges for people who wanted to enroll in a prison education program or return to school after they got out. Prior to “fresh start,” the process for bringing loans back into good standing was complicated and time consuming.
Shakur is one of thousands—possibly hundreds of thousands—incarcerated or formerly incarcerated student loan borrowers who would benefit from student loan forgiveness. Not only would it provide relief to people who have been unable to make loan payments from prison, it would also help pave a smoother reentry upon release.
In the meantime, the “fresh start” policy could benefit others like Shakur. In addition to bringing student loans into good standing, it removes the default from borrowers’ credit reports.
Shakur didn’t learn the details of the “fresh start” policy until December when she was trying to sort out her financial aid to go back to college this spring. “I didn’t know what I was eligible for,” she said. “Does that mean my loan interest rate is going to go up if I apply for this? I just didn’t know if it was safe. I was very leery of everything.”
At the time that Shakur was applying for the program, the information provided by the Education Department was scant. She had to scour college and government websites to figure out how to apply. But at least she had access to the internet, unlike nearly everyone in prison.
As an education reporter covering prisons, I field a lot of mail from incarcerated men and women who have questions that they can’t find the answers to inside. Student loans and the return of Pell Grants for college-in-prison programs are the top two inquiries.
The Education Department is in the process of rolling out an additional telephone number that incarcerated borrowers can use to contact the department’s default resolution group or their guaranty agency to get their loan out of default, according to the nonprofit National Consumer Law Center. But until then, mail is the only option. (As I’ve written about before, most prisons don’t allow people to call 1-800 numbers, and calls are generally limited to 15 or 20 minutes at a time.)
Shakur’s journey as a student was similar to many who are the first in their families to go to college. “When it comes to higher education, I didn’t have any guidance,” she said. “My goal was to just go to college and make a better life.”
When she went to college in 2004, she enrolled at a private, for-profit school that has since closed. She had always been taught that education was expensive, so when the college presented her with a $30,580 bill for a two-year degree, she didn’t ask questions. She took out loans to cover the costs. “I didn’t know any better,” she said.
A year later, she took a break from school when she had her first child. She tried to transfer to another college, but then put her loans into forbearance—temporarily stopping payments—when she got pregnant again.
In 2009, she was incarcerated. She knew she needed to do something about her loans to prevent skyrocketing interest and bad credit, but from inside, “it took me years to …to write to the Department of Education and get any response.”
Shakur eventually earned an associate’s degree program in prison through Central Texas College that was paid for with state funding. But she wanted more.
When she was released in November, she immediately applied to finish her bachelor’s in business at the University of Houston-Downtown. She also enrolled at Houston Community College to finish some general education requirements.
It was a battle to get there—Shakur said prison was an information desert, which was compounded by her general lack of knowledge about higher education. When she filled out the federal student aid application, known as the FAFSA, she received a notification that she wasn’t eligible for financial aid.
Many students would have stopped there. But she kept researching and asking questions.
And even after she applied for “fresh start,” she wasn’t sure if it would come through in time to start classes in January. As a result, her uncle paid for some of her community college classes out of pocket. Luckily, her loans were brought into good standing and she’s now taking online classes “like a mad woman.” But, while she was waiting for her application to be processed, she spent several weeks biting her nails.
It doesn’t have to be that way, she said. “There needs to be a process while we’re inside,” Shakur said. “Because if not, we’re going to come home to all of this mountain of debt.”
“We have to start a new life when we come home. And those loans, we should be able to take care of them.”