How to Pay for College in Prison

Individuals in prison may be able to participate in a college degree program. Explore multiple options to pay for your education.
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  • There are some free degree programs for prisoners.
  • The Second Chance Pell Grant can help eligible prisoners pay for college.
  • Some non-profits offer scholarships to imprisoned individuals to help lower education costs.

Enrolling in college courses while in prison is a strategic way to prepare for life on the other side while finishing a sentence. Many logistics, including available programs and funding, vary by prison location. It's good to understand how college education works in prison, plus options to finance this opportunity.

Can Inmates Go to College in Prison?

The types of college programs available to prison inmates depend on the facility. For instance, there may be a partnership program between a state prison and a local college or university to offer undergraduate degree programs. Some colleges offer online classes to inmates with internet access.

Inmates (or their families) are responsible for the cost of their college education unless a free program is available. The cost is one of the greatest barriers to pursuing a college education while in prison because federal financial aid opportunities are limited before an individual is released. However, some options are available to make a college degree more accessible while in prison.

Can Inmates Go to College for Free?

It depends on the prison location. Some free college programs are available, but they are limited to specific prisons. Here are a few examples:

Pell Grants for Felons and Prisoners

Explore Pell Grant opportunities while in prison and after release.

What Is a Pell Grant?

The Pell Grant is a federal financial aid opportunity to help students with financial need pay for college. The money doesn't have to be repaid and is included as part of the FAFSA student aid package. You can fill out FAFSA forms the year before you wish to attend college. They are typically due by the end of June.

Traditional Pell Grants aren't available to prisoners, but most formerly incarcerated individuals are eligible to apply. The exception is if a felon had a sexual offense requiring an involuntary civil commitment after being released from prison.

What Is the Second Chance Pell Program?

While in prison, getting school grants is still possible. The Department of Education expanded the Second Chance Pell Program for the 2022-2023 school year. Approximately 64% of individuals in state and federal prisons are eligible to apply for up to $6,495 to put towards college costs.

In total, the Second Chance Pell Grant supports 200 programs. Access begins on July 1, 2022. The Department of Education published a list of all participating programs as of April 26, 2022.

Can Prisoners Get Full Rides to College?

Getting a full-ride scholarship as a prisoner depends on program costs and the number of courses you enroll in. Prisoners in facilities with free college initiatives can earn a degree without paying tuition. A Second Chance Pell Grant can also cover a significant portion of tuition and could even become a full ride, depending on the costs.

Some non-profit organizations also offer scholarships designed specifically for prisoners. The Prison Education Foundation, for instance, offers scholarships that start with four credit hours. You can later apply for larger scholarship amounts once you complete those early courses.

Scholarships for Felons and Prisoners

In addition to applying for federal student aid, felons and prisoners can also apply for scholarships. While many scholarships don't exclude people with felony convictions, the following programs are specifically designed to help those with criminal histories:

The Prison Education Foundation Scholarship

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Who's eligible? U.S. citizens with a high school diploma or GED who are within seven years of their release date. Applicants can't have any disciplinary incidents within the last 12 months.

Deadline: Rolling

Award amount: Maximum of four credit hours

Apply for Scholarship

Transcending Through Education Foundation Scholarship

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Who's eligible? Applicants must be an inmate or a recently released individual from the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. You need a high school diploma or GED and must already be accepted to a higher education institution.

Deadline: August 1, 2022

Award amount: Up to $1,000

Apply for Scholarship

Charles W. Colson Scholarship

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Who's eligible? People with felony records who are Christian, regularly attend a church, and have been accepted into Wheaton College. Applicants must be out of prison for at least six months and cannot have a record of sexual offenses, arson, or repeat violent offenses.

Deadline: January 1-February 1

Award amount: Assistance with tuition and room and board

Apply for Scholarship

Other Ways to Pay for College in Prison

If grants and scholarships aren't enough to cover the cost of a college education in prison, there are other options to explore. One is to get a job within the prison. The drawback is that these jobs often pay very little, with hourly rates ranging from pennies to just a few dollars. And in some states, prisoners aren't paid for their work at all.

Another option is to ask friends and family for help. If they don't have the money themselves, they may be able to organize a fundraiser, such as a GoFundMe campaign. This gives community members the opportunity to help cover those education costs with as little or as much as they can.

Prisoners can also explore local art programs that partner to market and sell artwork created in prison. For instance, Denver's Art for Redemption project sells prisoners' artwork and pays 50% of sales to the artist.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute professional financial advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only. Readers of this website should contact a professional advisor before making decisions about financial issues.