Department of Education Finalizes Pell Grant Expansion for Incarcerated Students

The finalized rule includes changes based on input from community colleges and advocates.
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  • The Department of Education finalized a rule expanding Pell Grant access to students who are incarcerated.
  • Incarcerated students will have access to Pell Grants starting in July 2023, the first time since 1994.
  • The final rule includes relaxed criteria for corrections agencies to consider when reviewing programs after pushback from advocates and community college leaders.
  • Oversight entities like state corrections agencies will no longer be required to consider certain criteria, like earnings and job placement after release.

With a recently finalized Department of Education rule, incarcerated students again have access to Pell Grants.

Incarcerated people haven't had access to Pell Grants since the federal policy was nixed in 1994. But under new rules, incarcerated students will have access to the financial assistance nationwide starting in July 2023.

The Pell Grant expansion includes a slew of oversight, according to a fact sheet. Accrediting agencies and the Department of Education must approve a college's first prison education program at the first two correctional facilities where it launches, according to the fact sheet.

"Oversight entities," or state and federal corrections agencies, will also play a key role. Those agencies will consider aspects of the Pell Grant programs, like "whether instructors and credit transfer options are substantially similar for the prison education program and programs offered at the school's campus," in determining whether to approve a program.

Agencies will also need to consider instructors' credentials and experience and the availability of advising services when deciding on whether to approve a program.

The finalized rule, however, backs off on additional factors that oversight entities were, in draft versions, required to consider when deciding whether to approve a prison education program. Factors that are now optional include post-release enrollment, earnings, and job placement.

Those changes came after pushback in public comments, including from the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

The AACC was concerned about the criteria that oversight entities were required to consider in approving colleges' programs — particularly given that the Pell Grant expansion established in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 said that oversight entities "may '' consider various criteria in assessing a program.

Gathering in-depth data on earnings and job placement would take longer than the two years allotted in the Department of Education's proposed rule, Martha Parham, AACC senior vice president of public relations, previously told BestColleges.

"We're not going to get good data for the first couple of years, which is true of most programs, not just this one in particular," Parham previously said.

David Baime, senior vice president for government relations for the AACC, wrote in a blog post that the data points "would have required institutions to engage in costly information gathering of questionable utility in the agencies' designated role."

Baime noted the significance of the Department of Education backing off on those quantitative criteria.

"These changes are particularly significant because the proposed rule had garnered 'consensus' in the negotiated-rulemaking sessions preceding publication of the proposed rule, and regulators are usually predisposed to retain all features of proposed rules that have this status," Baime said.

The AACC sought a longer period for oversight entities to consider whether a program is in the best interest of students, but that two-year timeframe was kept in the final rule. The Department of Education wrote that two years "is sufficiently long enough to assess outcomes for shorter programs and will ensure accountability for poorly performing programs."

"These changes aside, corrections agencies retain a critical role in the new eligibility framework for prison education," Baime wrote. "Institutions wishing to offer Pell grants to incarcerated individuals will have to be approved by the state entity, which is required to determine whether the program is 'in the best interest' of individuals. Stakeholders have a designated role in providing input into this decision, so it will not be made in isolation by state corrections bodies."