Congress Restores Pell Grant Eligibility for Incarcerated College Students

Blog Post
Rebekah Zemansky
Jan. 14, 2021

New America is diving into the implications for higher education of the 2020 end-of-year deal passed by Congress. Click here for a summary of the new law’s postsecondary education provisions, here to read how the bill supports increased broadband access for Pell recipients, and visit or subscribe here for more in the coming weeks.

When Congress passed a law at the end of the year revising the FAFSA and funding the government, lawmakers also revised a quarter-century-old provision that prevented incarcerated students from accessing Pell Grants to pay for postsecondary education and training in prison. The change is something to celebrate: Postsecondary education programs for incarcerated students provide critical skills and opportunities that improve students’ odds of success.

The history of the provision goes back to the “tough on crime” wave of the 1990s. In 1994, Congress passed a crime bill that, among other things, removed eligibility for incarcerated adults to receive Pell Grants. Practically overnight, funding dried up; and within a year, participation in prison-based college programs shrank by 44 percent.

In recent years, however, the tide has begun to turn in favor of prison-based higher education programs, which research shows are effective at reducing recidivism and providing individuals with the skills and education they need to find work upon release. A report that New America published in 2019 demonstrated that prison education programs provide incarcerated individuals with the literacy and numeracy skills they need to be on par with the general population.

In 2015, the Obama Administration launched a pilot program, called Second Chance Pell, that offered dozens of colleges the opportunity to again use Pell Grants to offer education to around 12,000 students. The Trump Administration endorsed the policy, calling on Congress to repeal the ban completely; and expanded the program to dozens more colleges. Changing the law to repeal the ban became a leading priority for organizations on both the left and the right, bringing together faith-based organizations, the business community, corrections officials, and civil rights and criminal justice groups.

So when Congress finally agreed to revise some elements of the Higher Education Act in late 2020, as Senate HELP Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) wound down his tenure and prepared to retire, members agreed to again extend Pell eligibility to incarcerated students in programs that meet certain conditions. A separate provision of the law will also remove a long-standing restriction on aid eligibility for students who are convicted of a drug offense while receiving Title IV federal financial aid, noted as a needless barrier to federal student aid for some students. The Pell Grant provision will take effect no later than July 1, 2023, although the Education Department could choose to implement it sooner if feasible (and, of course, will likely continue to operate the ongoing experiments in the meantime, to provide a runway until the law is in full effect).

The requirement for prison education programs to meet certain conditions is a critical one. As New America and other organizations have been saying since at least early 2019, Pell restoration “must… create a meaningful opportunity to attain a high quality education.” We called on Congress to expand Pell eligibility regardless of length of sentence and type of conviction, as well as adopt key guardrails “to ensure the responsible use of federal funds and the fair treatment of students.” Lawmakers heard the call and adopted a set of requirements for institutions seeking to access Pell Grants for prison education programs.

Chief among those guardrails is ensuring that predatory, for-profit colleges are not able to exploit incarcerated students. In the higher education system broadly, for-profit colleges often cost more and provide an education of lower value than other institutions. In the context of correctional facilities, reigning in those profit interests and ensuring a quality education could be even more challenging. The new law allows only public and private nonprofit colleges to seek approval to operate Pell-financed programs in prisons. It also requires that institutions have a relatively clean record, without severe actions taken by the Education Department, the state, or the college’s accreditor within the five years prior to seeking approval.

Rightly, lawmakers recognized that wouldn’t be enough to ensure quality. Institutions seeking Pell access must be approved by the state department of corrections or the federal Bureau of Prisons (or the applicable equivalent agency) to operate in correctional facilities. That requirement will allow correctional and education partners to ensure adequate forethought has been given to how the program will run, by forcing institutions to develop plans before launching headfirst into offering education in prison facilities.

But it will also mean a new challenge for state and federal corrections departments, many of which are ill-equipped to make determinations about academic quality and which have little experience navigating the complex postsecondary education system. The law notes that states may choose to grant approvals based on their own determinations, and can look at elements like recidivism rates; job placement rates and earnings; rates of continued education post-release; the experience, credentials, and/or turnover rates of instructors; credit transferability; and the services in academics and career counseling available to students. The Education Department, along with the Justice Department, are instructed to provide technical assistance to the approval entities.

That technical assistance represents a significant opportunity for the incoming Biden-Harris Administration. Many states won’t have easy access to the data that might help them make informed decisions about academic quality; the Education Department can provide it, in easy-to-interpret summaries of colleges’ outcomes. The Department can also share details about what it’s learned from the Second Chance Pell experiment (admittedly not through any kind of rigorous assessment), like the kinds of student support services that institutions reported incarcerated students most required. DOJ and the Education Department can work to provide advice on how to gather data on and calculate recidivism rates. And it can provide samples of the kinds of certifications, assurances, and application materials that should be required of colleges, comparable to the applications the Education Department has required of participating Second Chance Pell schools.

The legislation also layers a few more requirements on participating postsecondary institutions. Participating colleges must ensure the credits from their programs transfer to at least one institution in the state where the correctional facility is located. Programs must also meet any applicable licensure requirements in the state where the prison is situated, including not offering education in any field where licensure requirements typically preclude the licensure of formerly incarcerated graduates.

Finally, the Education Department is expected to contribute to the research in this field, by ensuring an evaluation of the program that will study issues with completion of the FAFSA by incarcerated students; the outcomes of students (both while they’re incarcerated and upon release); and the types of reentry and career services provided by the college. Here, again, is a major opportunity for the Education Department, to conduct rigorous research that will support the provision of additional aid (like state dollars) for prison-education programs, inform and improve how states and the Bureau of Prisons conduct their approvals of participating colleges, and to ensure the best possible outcomes for students who are incarcerated.

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Higher Education Funding and Financial Aid