Congress Lifted the Pell Grant Ban for Incarcerated People. What Now?

By Ruth Delany and Allan Wachendorfer


In December 2020, Congress lifted a 26-year ban on Pell Grants for people in prison. The change means that incarcerated people, who are disproportionately Black and brown, can now benefit from the monumental expansion of access to the transformative experience of education. Postsecondary education in prison is shown to have a positive impact on incarcerated students and their families, the prison environments they live in, and the communities they will return to.

With Pell Grant access restored, now is the time for colleges and universities to understand how we got to this point and explore their institutions’ potential to offer and support high quality educational opportunities for people in prison and the impact those opportunities will have on everyone involved.

Second Chance Pell gives incarcerated people access

As part of the “tough on crime” era of the 1990s, people in state and federal prison were banned from accessing Pell Grants in 1994, a policy change that has since denied thousands of people access to education. In the last year before the ban, about 23,000 students were using Pell Grants to pay for college—approximately 2 percent of all people incarcerated at the time, but only about one in 500 of all Pell recipients.

After the ban, programs all but dried up. This change was one example of the larger move toward an increasingly punitive approach to corrections that had begun to take root in the United States in the 1980s. It would be well into the new millennium before another ideological movement began to transform American prisons again. This paradigm refocused corrections on research-based interventions that could end cycles of incarceration. In this period, college programs behind bars and their potential to open new opportunities to people leaving prison garnered new enthusiasm among policymakers and corrections leaders alike.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) launched the Second Chance Pell (SCP) Experimental Sites Initiative. This historic pilot program initially authorized 67 colleges and universities to partner in 2016 with prisons to offer incarcerated students postsecondary education by temporarily restoring their eligibility for Pell Grants. ED subsequently added 67 additional institutions to SCP in 2020.

The Vera Institute of Justice provides technical assistance to the participating colleges and corrections departments, helping ensure that the programs provide quality higher education in prison and post-release. In a policy brief analyzing data from the first three years of the initiative across 60 of the participating sites, Vera found that colleges had enrolled nearly 17,000 people and SCP students had earned more than 4,500 certificates, postsecondary diplomas, associate degrees, and bachelor’s degrees. The students completed a variety of programs from applied career technical training, such as a welding certificate at Milwaukee Area Technical College, to baccalaureate degrees, such as the bachelor of science in business administration at Glenville State College in West Virginia. The data also show that with each passing year of the SCP program, more students are earning credentials than the year before.

Overall, postsecondary education in prison has been shown to contribute to successful reentry for people who have been incarcerated and to promote public safety. People who participate in postsecondary education in prison typically describe the experience as transformative. They often become positive role models in prison and return to their communities with new perspectives and goals and with new opportunities open to them.

They also are more likely to be employed after their release and to earn higher wages. Jobs that require applicants to have at least some college education make up a sizable share of the economy and are projected to continue to do so over the next decade. Incarcerated people who participate in prison postsecondary education programs are 48 percent less likely to recidivate than those who do not, and prisons with college programs report less violence and safer conditions. This helps create safer communities as well as taxpayer savings from reduced incarceration costs.

SCP has demonstrated success across a range of colleges and universities, including community colleges, public and private colleges and universities, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, federally designated minority serving institutions; and Tribal Colleges and Universities. Furthermore, many more colleges and universities have found ways to provide meaningful access to incarcerated students despite the dearth of resources. There is also a clear willingness among corrections officials to open their doors to postsecondary opportunities.

Lifting the Pell ban is a critical step toward racial equity

With Pell Grant access restored, we can now move forward with more postsecondary programs in prison, which are an evidence-based way to shatter many of the inequities and obstacles associated with reentry that people with low-incomes and communities of color face—the very communities that colleges and universities are often striving to serve better.

Black and brown people are disproportionately harmed by the criminal justice system. Black and Latinx people make up roughly 32 percent of the U.S. population, but 56 percent are incarcerated. Black men in particular are hit hard. Currently, one in three Black men without a high school education or GED® certificate will end up incarcerated.

College education is a primary avenue toward upward mobility. This is particularly important for Black and brown people who have been largely excluded from wealth-building policies in the past, resulting in a reality in which white Americans have 20 times the net worth of Black Americans and 18 times the net worth of Latinx Americans. Those who enroll in college programs during or after prison share their knowledge, skills, and connections—their social capital—with their children and families, multiplying the impact of a single college degree.

With the Pell ban lifted, Black and brown people impacted by the criminal justice system can get a fairer shot at the American dream. Higher education gives them the opportunity to secure the income, safety, and other opportunities necessary to transform their lives and their families’ futures. We encourage more colleges and universities to partner with corrections departments to disrupt the longstanding cycles of recidivism and inequities that disproportionately harm Black and brown communities.

How to start a prison education program

Colleges and universities must understand their own potential to partner with corrections departments to make postsecondary education in prison a reality for students. Starting a college program in prison is a significant undertaking that will profoundly affect the lives of students, faculty, and staff. The prison environment presents administrators with norms and rules for operating wholly unlike those of a typical college. With some guidance, however, most administrators can successfully launch a new program.

Vera created a comprehensive guide for colleges and corrections departments seeking to set up new education programs. In First Class, Vera guides program coordinators who are launching a college-in-prison program—from the decision to undertake this work to the first day of class.

When you’re starting a college in prison program, it’s important to consider your new environment first:

  • Successful in-prison postsecondary education programs affirm incarcerated students’ human dignity and allow them to identify career paths of interest.
  • Colleges and correctional institutions seeking to build successful postsecondary education programs in prison must ensure that in-prison educational quality is comparable to that on campus.
  • Navigating the academic system from inside prison, where security mandates can impede access to study materials and the financial aid process, requires help from both corrections and college staff.

All colleges and universities interested in starting a prison education program should also understand updates to the FAFSA form and the impact it will have on incarcerated students—many of which reduce burdens students have faced throughout the SCP initiative. The Pell ban was lifted as part of a broader effort to overhaul the FAFSA in the FAFSA Simplification Act, which was packaged as part of the second COVID-19 relief bill passed in December 2020 and known as the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

The law makes several key changes to the Higher Education Act of 1965 and the FAFSA form itself, including reducing the number of questions, eliminating the Selective Service System registration requirement, removing questions about prior criminal convictions, and increasing discretion for financial aid administrators. While these provisions have an effective date of July 1, 2023 for award year 2023–24, the secretary of education has the power to implement changes sooner at their discretion.

The law holds great promise for easing administrative and financial burdens on students in all circumstances who are seeking postsecondary education, including incarcerated students.

Conclusion

The reinstatement of Pell Grants for incarcerated people presents a tremendous opportunity for colleges and universities to further live up to their educational missions by including those who are currently and formerly incarcerated. Through this work, Vera has found that a critical element to the success of postsecondary education in prison and access on campus is the full-throated support of college administrators. With Pell reinstatement, we hope to see more high-quality postsecondary institutions step into this space to offer the transformative experience of a college education.


Are you interested in technical assistance in starting your education in prison program? Please contact Ruth Delaney at rdelaney@vera.org to learn more.

Higher Education Today