Education Dept. Expands Pell Grants for Students in Prison

Education Dept. Expands Pell Grants for Students in Prison
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By Anne Dennon

Published on August 13, 2021

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The Department of Education (ED) will expand the Second Chance Pell experiment for the 2022-2023 award year. The initiative allows inmates at certain federal and state prisons to receive need-based Pell Grants for college education. The award is worth up to $6,495 for the upcoming school year.

In December 2020, lawmakers ended a 1994 ban on providing federal financial aid to people in prison. The Trump administration's 2021 budget included a provision to lift the ban and provide eligible students in college-in-prison programs access to federal funds, including Pell Grants, beginning July 1, 2023.

The latest expansion of the pilot program is expected to make 64% of people in state and federal prison eligible for federal student aid. The experiment intends to strengthen arguments to lift the ban.

The latest expansion of the pilot program is expected to make 64% of people in state and federal prison eligible for federal student aid.

While no large-scale study has tested the outcomes of the Second Chance program, it has provided education. A 2021 report shows that the first four years of the Second Chance Pell experiment reached 22,000 students and awarded 7,000 credentials. Research suggests that education provides a turning point for incarcerated people.

Incarcerated people who participated in postsecondary education programs were 48% less likely to return to prison. They also found more employment opportunities and received higher earnings. Odds of obtaining employment after release were 13% higher for former inmates who participated in correctional education compared to their counterparts who did not.

Connecting people in the justice system with higher education has societal impact, too. By reducing recidivism, education access reduces incarceration costs. Every dollar invested saves taxpayers between $4 and $5. Education also promises to build safer communities. Education helps people who have been incarcerated reenter the world.

Incarcerated Americans Eligible for Full Rides to College

In 1965, Congress allowed all prisoners to receive Pell grants for college. By the early 1980s, the number of college-in-prison programs swelled to 350. A decade later, there were nearly 800 such programs. But as the 1990s progressed, politicians wanting to appear "tough on crime" put an end to federal student aid for prisoners.

A 1994 crime bill banned all prisoners from receiving Pell funding. After Congress stripped incarcerated individuals of their Pell eligibility, the number of education programs in prisons took a nosedive.

The bipartisan ban led to bipartisan efforts to lift the ban. President Joe Biden was among the senators who supported the law. During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden called the ban a "big mistake." The current push for prison reform emphasizes rehabilitation, reducing prison populations, and reducing prison terms.

Under President Obama, the ED created the Second Chance Pell program in 2015 through its Experimental Sites Initiative (ESI). This initiative allows the department to waive some restrictions on federal student aid in order to evaluate new policy ideas. Nearly 5,000 incarcerated students received Pell grants the first year and nearly 7,000 the second year.

The latest expansion under President Biden will allow up to 200 postsecondary institutions to participate and aims to establish programs in all 50 states.

Under President Trump, the ED doubled the number of colleges and universities receiving Second Chance funds, from 67 colleges and universities to 134. The latest expansion under President Biden will allow up to 200 postsecondary institutions to participate and aims to establish programs in all 50 states.

The Second Chance Pell experiment examines how access to financial aid impacts the life outcomes of incarcerated adults. It also provides researchers with opportunities to develop best practices before prisoners are granted full Pell Grant eligibility in another two years.

While the ED is prepared to grant the applications of a larger number of schools, current available slots are not totally filled. Out of the available 134, 131 colleges and universities presently participate.

The program requires that schools offer credentials in high-demand fields that are open to people with criminal records, help students transfer credits or enroll on campus after release, and provide assistance around housing, employment, and treatment.


Feature Image: Thinkstock / Stockbyte / Getty Images

Biden proposes expanding the college grant program, as a bipartisan Senate bill looks to extend the program to cover short-term certificates. College students stand to benefit from Biden's new proposals, which include two years of free community college, more Pell Grant funding, and retention efforts. Want to pursue a degree, but feel it's financially out of reach? Make your journey a little easier with these resources for finding scholarships and grants.