New Efforts to Increase Access to Pell Grants for Incarcerated Students

By: Amy Loyd, Acting Assistant Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Strategic Initiatives, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona recently invited students who had attended college-in-prison programs to share their experiences. Their stories were moving; all of the students who attended the virtual roundtable told the Secretary that they truly realized their potential while participating in education while in prison, thanks in large part to the efforts of educational institutions that offered them a second chance. Today, those students have rewarding careers and full lives. Most are also actively engaged, in one way or another, in ensuring that people who are currently incarcerated received a second chance just like they did. Postsecondary educational programs offered in prisons give students who are incarcerated new opportunities to improve their education, obtain employment, reconnect with family, and re-engage with their communities.

That’s why today, the Education Department is announcing that it will further expand access to higher education in prison for justice-involved individuals. First, we will invite new educational institutions to participate in the Second Chance Pell experiment, which invests in students who are incarcerated by allowing approved colleges and universities to support those students through Pell Grant funds. The Second Chance Pell experiment began in 2015, and it has provided opportunities for thousands of students at more than 130 institutions of higher education. Through Second Chance Pell, over 22,000 students have earned over 7,000 postsecondary credentials, building new skills and improving their odds of success.

By inviting more institutions to participate, the Department will allow up to 200 two- and four-year colleges and universities to offer their prison-education programs through the Second Chance Pell experiment. Interested institutions will apply to the Department, and we will select institutions to join the experiment that will increase diversity for the experiment, particularly geographic diversity. By expanding the experiment and broadening its coverage to more of the country, the Department will gain critical insights about how to reinstate Pell Grant eligibility within correctional facilities, and how postsecondary institutions can best serve students who are incarcerated.

Those lessons learned about reinstating Pell Grant access for incarcerated students will be especially useful over the coming months and years, thanks to a change Congress recently made to the Higher Education Act. In December 2020, lawmakers expanded access to Pell Grants to include students who are incarcerated once again for those enrolled in prison education programs that are approved by their state corrections departments or the federal Bureau of Prisons and that meet other requirements. The Department plans to implement those provisions starting on July 1, 2023. In the meantime, the Department has announced plans to publish regulations that will ensure prison education programs are designed to advance equitable outcomes for all students.

Both the expansion of Second Chance Pell and the new rules governing prison education programs will extend federal financial aid to more students who are incarcerated, and to more postsecondary education programs. By one estimate, 300 college programs currently operate in prisons, enrolling more than 25,000 students across the country; through these changes, many more could join in the future. Secretary Cardona and the rest of the Biden Administration hope to reach as many of those students as possible.

We know that these efforts can’t stop with eligibility for Pell Grants. We also need to make sure the federal financial aid program is truly accessible to students in prison. Already, we have taken steps to implement changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) that students and institutions alike have reported as major stumbling blocks: removing the consequences of questions about Selective Service registration and requirements around drug convictions. Federal aid applicants who are incarcerated are more likely than others to have loans in default, which makes them ineligible for Pell Grants. We are actively exploring ways to help these students reestablish eligibility for federal student aid. We will continue to explore additional changes that will make it easier for incarcerated students to access Pell Grants for qualifying programs, and to listen to the voices and experiences of the students as we move forward.