Communications | Advocacy / Policy

Turn On The TAP

January 27, 2021
Tim Ward


ALBANY, N.Y. – Following the Federal Government’s reinstatement of Pell Grant access to incarcerated people, New York’s Turn on the TAP campaign is pushing the state to restore Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) eligibility to people in prison. After the federal Pell ban in 1994, New York implemented a ban on TAP eligibility in 1995. As a result, the number of college-in-prison programs in New York fell from over 70 to 4. The bipartisan restoration of Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated students is a clear political endorsement of the value of college-in-prison, signaling to New York that it is past time to also restore TAP.

Providing college opportunities in prison has been found to deliver strong employment outcomes, develop employer-demanded skills, make prisons safer, and strengthen pathways to successful reentry. These programs also hold the unique potential to improve students’ lives, help narrow racial and economic equity gaps in postsecondary attainment and workforce participation, strengthen local economies and communities, and disrupt cycles of incarceration that continue to target, harm, and limit opportunity for Black and Brown people and people from low-income backgrounds.

In 2014, Governor Cuomo pushed to expand college-in-prison programming. The proposal was unsuccessful after facing opposition from prior legislative leadership despite a majority of voters having supported the bill. Importantly, TAP funding to any one student does not affect funding available to any other students. No student has ever lost a TAP dollar as a result of an incarcerated student receiving TAP.

While the cost of TAP to incarcerated individuals would be negligible in relation to the state’s total TAP expenditures, TAP restoration would yield significant cost savings.  A 2016 Rand study found that for every $1 a state invests in college-in-prison, it saves $4-5 five dollars in terms of incarceration costs. As Governor Cuomo has stated, “Giving men and women in prison the opportunity to earn a college degree costs our state less and benefits our society more.”

New York State is known for its commitment to promoting high-quality affordable education, but this promise is unfulfilled as long as those behind bars are left behind. Black and Brown communities are hyper-policed, over-criminalized, and disproportionately imprisoned. Meaningful gains in racial equity must include closing racial opportunity gaps. While 45% of the general population has a college degree, this is true for less than 5% of those incarcerated. There are 15,000 incarcerated people in New York State prison with a high school diploma or GED, but only 10% of them currently have access to higher education in prison. Restoring TAP will help close New York’s educational gap.

For additional information or comments, please reach out to Tim Ward at or 304-654-6397.

The following quotes can be attributed to partner organizations within Turn On The TAP:

“Access to education is a means to freedom,” says, Vivian Nixon, Executive Director of College & Community Fellowship. “Since the first slaves arrived, the denial of education has been used to strip Black people of every kind of power. With racial tensions at a fever pitch, we must invest in policies that create an equitable path to justice. New York ignores its racist history while continuing to promulgate oppressive policies. No more. Everyone has the right to education and the opportunities that come with it. We must reinstate TAP for those inside prisons on our long journey to racial equity in this State.”

“College-in-prison is the most effective, simplest, and most affordable expansion of college opportunity in the entire landscape of higher education,” says Max Kenner, Executive Director of Bard Prison Initiative. “New York State is ready to be a leader in this field and it is past time for the legislature to reverse the terrible decision it made with Governor Pataki in 1995. Lifting the ban on TAP grants for incarcerated people in New York is how we invest in people and education over prisons and punishment.”

“Higher education is a tool which helps all of us build a thriving state,” says Rabbi Hilly Haber, Director of Social Justice Organizing and Education at Central Synagogue. “It is a way of ensuring a future of promise and hope for all New Yorkers. It is also a means of combating mass incarceration in New York State, breaking cycles of poverty in NY communities, reducing rates of recidivism, and increasing cost-savings for state and federal governments.  For these reasons, we ask that you ‘Turn on the TAP’ for all New York residents so that justice and equality can overflow into all New York communities.”

The Turn on the TAP campaign, organized by the College & Community Fellowship and the Bard Prison Initiative, brings together a statewide coalition of alumni, educators, practitioners, and justiceimpacted advocates.

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