A Criminal Past Doesn't Shut the Door To Higher Education

March 10, 2010 - 5:45pm

by Luke Thomsen, former A.C.I inmate, current RIC student

The stigma of being a convicted felon can make the prospect of higher education seem like a far-off dream, something too lofty to even consider. Well, I am here to tell you it isn’t so! It’s never too late to enhance your education, and the roadblocks are surprisingly few. There are numerous resources for people struggling financially, and most schools are just waiting for you to call.

It all starts with you. A decision must be made: “Do I want credentials and qualifications that prove I’m a motivated individual, moving away from my past? Do I want to engage in activities that bolster knowledge, self-esteem and creativity? Do I want to open my horizons to opportunities that aren’t even comprehendible right now? Do I want a more fulfilling, lucrative career, as to be a better provider for my family?” If the answer is yes to any of these questions, then perhaps school is the right direction to go in.

If you don’t have a high-school diploma or GED, then this is your first step. There are resources out there to assist you in receiving your GED (contact OpenDoors for details). Next, you must single out educational institutions of interest. New England Tech and CCRI are logical places to start, because you don’t need any previous college experience to attend. Rhode Island’s four-year colleges require, on average, 28 credits to be eligible as a transfer student. If you would like to transfer to a four-year school, then CCRI is a great option. In addition, if you were incarcerated and participated in any of the CCRI courses offered by the D.O.C, you might already be on your way; many of these courses are accredited.

The FAFSA (free application for federal student aid) is a big piece of any educational puzzle. Obviously, money is a huge hurdle for felons going to school. Fortunately, the less you earn, and the less money you have, the more eligible you are for federal and state grants, scholarships and subsidized loans.

Some of the things offered are:

  • Pell grants
  • Federal Supplemental Grants (FSEOG)
  • Federal Work-Study ProgramStafford Loan Program
  • RI State Scholarship and Grant Programs
  • Individual school grants (RIC, URI, NETech, Etc.)

The  FAFSA is an all-encompassing way to apply for all of these things. Also, individual schools, upon receiving your application, will rely on your FAFSA to determine financial eligibility. In most cases, a criminal conviction will not affect your eligibility for financial aid.  However, if you were arrested on a drug conviction while receiving financial aid, you may not be eligible for some forms of federal aid. 

The FAFSA is a very important step in receiving student-aid, so start getting your information together ahead of time. You’ll need to know your income for the present and previous year, current worth of any assets, and (if you’re under the age of 23 and unmarried) your parents financial information. The FAFSA must be completed no later then June of the year you wish to attend school. However, many schools have their own financial-aid protocols. So, get started now.

It’s up to us to decide our fate, but we don’t have to do it alone; there are resources out there to help. A little bit of willingness and determination go a long way in defining what, or who, we become. I can’t think of a better way to define oneself than knowledge and independence. Our pasts are behind us, and our futures await.

At the age of 22 I was sentenced to 25 years, 9 to serve for armed robbery. While incarcerated I attended every CCRI course available. Really I was just trying to pass the days and earn some “good-time.” Serendipity stepped in when, on a whim, I applied to some schools and for financial-aid: I was awarded a Pell grant, a state grant and a subsidized loan. Also, because of my CCRI credits I was accepted to RIC as a transfer student. How my sight broadened at the prospect! This was the moment for me when I realized that there are two ways to walk out of prison: dejected, jaded and hopeless; or, ambitious, serene and hopeful. I chose the latter and haven’t looked back. It has been a big transition for me, but I’ve loved every second of it. Currently my days have purpose and promise, and I am part of the world again.



(RI higher education assistance authority):
(401) 736-1100



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