Second Chance Programs Increase Access to Higher Education

Second chance programs help people who are or were incarcerated earn degrees –– and they help reduce recidivism. Learn more about these vital programs.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published May 13, 2022

Reviewed by Angelique Geehan

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Second Chance Programs Increase Access to Higher Education
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Today, 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. has a criminal record. And a criminal history can limit your ability to secure housing, find a job, or earn a college degree. In fact, most colleges ask applicants about their criminal history. What's more, a criminal record can make applicants ineligible for financial aid.

Second chance programs help people who were or are incarcerated reenter society and pursue their educational goals. In particular, prison education programs and the Second Chance Pell program increase access to higher education.

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What Is a Second Chance Program?

Second chance programs support people with a criminal history. They help remove barriers to housing, employment, and higher education. The 2008 Second Chance Act, which was renewed in 2018, funds programs across the country that help people released from prisons and jails.

Second chance programs can play a key role in their lives and reduce recidivism rates. Within three years of their release, around 67% of formerly incarcerated people are arrested again. That national recidivism rate has remained largely the same for more than 30 years.

Second chance programs show the power that higher education can have in reducing recidivism. Research shows that states that invest in higher education report lower violent crime rates. And participating in higher education while incarcerated drops the chances of returning to prison by nearly half.

In March 2022, President Joe Biden spoke out in favor of second chance programs.

"By supporting people who are committed to rectifying their mistakes, redefining themselves, and making meaningful contributions to society, we help reduce recidivism and build safer communities."

Pell Grant Funding for Second Chance Initiatives

It's harder for people with criminal records to access higher education and financial aid programs. The Pell Grant program, which dates back to the 1960s, offers financial assistance to many college students. But the 1994 crime bill banned Pell Grants for incarcerated people.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) launched the Second Chance Pell experiment initiative. The initiative evaluates whether expanding access to financial aid increased postsecondary education participation among adults who are incarcerated.

The initiative extended Pell Grant support to people who are incarcerated. From 2016-2020, the number of participating colleges grew from 67 to 130 schools across 42 states. And in 2021, ED announced an expansion of the program.

So far, over 22,000 people have participated in the Second Chance Pell program –– with more than 7,000 earning a certificate or degree. Because program results show such a drastic drop in recidivism, every $1 invested in financial aid support for people who are incarcerated saves taxpayers $4-$5 in reduced incarceration costs.

The Second Chance Pell program will soon expand to more degree-seekers. Starting in July 2023, all eligible people who are incarcerated will be eligible for Pell Grants for prison education programs.

Schools Participating in Second Chance Programs

"The experience of attending college in prison has definitely changed my life for the better."

Students of color make up about 60% of those in the Second Chance Pell program, compared with 48% of the entire college population. Black students make up 34% of those in the second chance program. This compares to Black students making up 13% of the student population at U.S. colleges.

Access to higher education can help close racial and ethnic wage gaps. And a growing number of schools offer prison college programs that include financial aid support.

"Education plays a crucial role in people's ability to prosper and advance," says Amy Loyd, assistant secretary for the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education at ED. "Too often justice-impacted individuals are left out of the higher-education landscape."

During its first year, 67 colleges participated in the Second Chance Pell initiative. As of 2020, that includes seven colleges each in Texas and New York, four each in California and Pennsylvania, and three each in Michigan, Alabama, and Oklahoma. For the 2022-2023 academic year, over 200 colleges will participate.

Colleges typically partner with a local correctional facility to provide classes for people who are incarcerated. Currently, 13 State University of New York campuses serve students at 21 prisons in the state. Many community colleges also participate in the Second Chance Pell program.

"The experience of attending college in prison has definitely changed my life for the better," writes Amanda Serrano, who earned a college degree while incarcerated.

A growing number of jobs require postsecondary education –– yet 86% of people who are incarcerated have no college experience. Second chance programs aim to change that.

Resources for Second Chance Students

The alliance offers resources, toolkits, research, and information on higher education in prison. It also provides a directory of prison programs. The project offers research on prison education, including student testimonials and information about ongoing work in prison education. Vera provides resources on attending college in prison and post-release employment opportunities. The organization also publishes research. The site lists college correspondence courses through 35 colleges that are available to people who are incarcerated. Learn more about enrolling in classes while in prison.

Frequently Asked Questions About Second Chance Programs

Which states are second chance states?

Most states offer second chance programs to people with criminal records and formerly incarcerated people.

The federal Second Chance Act, passed in 2008 and reauthorized in 2018, funds state and local efforts to support previously incarcerated people after their release. A total of 49 states have received grants through the program.

In addition to the Second Chance Act, many state and local governments pass their own laws to support those with criminal records. The Pell Grant second chance program also helps people complete college certificates and degrees.

In 2020, colleges in 30 states participated in Second Chance Pell programs.

What is national Second Chance Month?

Since 2018, the federal government has recognized April as national Second Chance Month.

Every year, as many as 750,000 people exit the prison system. They face many obstacles in finding jobs, securing housing, and reintegrating into society. Second Chance Month brings attention to challenges with reentry.

For example, many public housing organizations and public assistance programs ban those with felony convictions. In the past, the Pell Grant also limited use to those without a felony conviction. This made it even harder for people who were formerly incarcerated to earn a college degree.

Second Chance Month aims to lower the 67% recidivism rate among people who have previously been incarcerated.

What are justice reinvestment initiatives?

Justice reinvestment initiatives examine evidence related to crime, incarceration, and recidivism. These initiatives aim to improve outcomes for people who are incarcerated and help jurisdictions make evidence-based decisions about their criminal justice resources.

The federal Justice Reinvestment Initiative provides information on state and site-related projects. Over 30 states have participated in the federal project, saving an estimated $1 billion.

By investing in programs that reduce recidivism, including higher education projects, these initiatives also improve the experience for people who were formerly incarcerated. The federal initiative is a public-private partnership between the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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