How the Expansion of Pell Grants can transform the lives of incarcerated individuals

Ariana Kertsman
August 21, 2023
“An education is an opportunity to become successful. In prison it’s a source of pride and redemption, and presents an individual with the chance to feel good about making progress in a place where growth is often limited and stagnated.” - Terry Mowatt, Prison Scholars Fund
The Expansion of the Pell Grant Program was put into effect on July 1st, 2023.

The expansion of the Pell Grant program significantly addresses the cycle of recidivism and supports the successful reintegration of incarcerated individuals into society. This federal grant, originally designed to assist financially disadvantaged students, now includes those enrolled in eligible programs while serving time in prison.

In 2020, Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act, which changed how financial aid is distributed. The Simplification Act is both preventive and supportive post-incarceration. In many cases, people end up incarcerated due to lack of financial security in their everyday lives. According to Vera, “More than 80% of all arrests are for low-level, nonviolent offenses and conduct related to poverty,” highlighting that one of the leading causes of incarceration is the criminalization of poverty. The Act expanded access to Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals, allowing more people to receive high-quality education without facing additional economic hardship. The implicit value of this is powerful: incarceration already perpetuates financial challenges for people during their imprisonment and upon re-entry into society, limiting their ability to find and maintain employment, accumulate savings, and access housing opportunities. Expanding Pell Grants to incarcerated individuals not only reduces the prevalence of student loan defaults and other financial obstacles to education, but it also decreases criminalized activity that causes harm to individuals and communities.

The Simplification Act: An essential legislative action for reintegration post-incarceration.

One of the most critical changes instituted by the Simplification Act is a simplified FAFSA. The FAFSA is—”a form that was not designed with incarcerated students in mind” (Vera Institute). Making the form more accessible to incarcerated applicants is essential when striving for equitable educational opportunities and greater access to career opportunities post-incarceration. With the expansion of Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated people, Vera estimates that “more than 760,000 people will have the opportunity to pursue postsecondary education in prison.” In many cases, a Pell Grant is the only opportunity an incarcerated person has to access and afford a postsecondary education. Once they can access these degree programs and educational support, more doors start opening.

  • Prior to the changes, the FAFSA was a significant hurdle for students in correctional facilities:
  • The current 103-question form can be laborious for those seeking financial aid, particularly incarcerated students who lack the convenience of skipping irrelevant questions or using the online application (Vera Institute).
  • Financial aid administrators at prison education program colleges have tried to assist students with the FAFSA; however, prisons’ policies have often compromised their assistance.
  • Many applicants need support filling out their documentation and therefore required in-person meetings with their administrators.
  • Meetings can span several months, making it challenging to complete the form on time—non-incarcerated students are often capable of filling out the FAFSA in under an hour.
  • Incarcerated individuals under 24 face an additional challenge as dependents needing their parents' tax return information, which can be difficult if regular visits or communication are not possible.

Understanding the challenges faced by incarcerated individuals when applying for a Pell Grant is crucial for raising awareness about the barriers they encounter, as it highlights the systemic inequalities within the criminal justice system. The impact of legislative change, such as the Simplification Act, shows an evolving recognition that access to education is a fundamental right and a powerful tool for rehabilitation, reintegration, and reducing recidivism rates among incarcerated individuals.

Colleges using Pell Grants to offer their courses to incarcerated scholars actively disrupt the cycle of recidivism.

People who are re-entering the workforce have a much higher success rate of finding stable employment if they’ve participated in educational programming while incarcerated. Colleges that offer their courses to incarcerated scholars play an active role in disrupting the cycle of recidivism.

Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin is a powerful disruptor. This college has offered post-secondary education programs at eight prisons across Wisconsin, supporting many incarcerated scholars to prepare for their return home and transition into the workforce. Keyimani Alford, Dean of Student Access and Success, says that the success they’ve witnessed through their educational programming is “only going to increase [incarcerated scholars’] access to different employers and jobs based on the education and training they’re receiving while incarcerated, which makes it so much easier to do life again once they’re released.” According to a study by Northwestern , “there is a 43% reduction in recidivism rates for those prisoners who participate in prison education programs,” suggesting that people with access to high-quality education have a smoother transition back home than those who aren’t involved in programming while incarcerated. This same study found that obtaining higher degrees further decreases recidivism rates.

Access to education is a matter of social justice and equity. Offering educational programs to incarcerated individuals ensures that they have an opportunity to transform their lives, regardless of the circumstances that brought them into prison. Education also helps address systemic inequalities that often perpetuate cycles of poverty and criminal activity, building long-term benefits for the individuals, their families, and the communities to which they belong.

The expansion of fair-chance employment opportunities benefits all of us.

At Nucleos, we know that everyone has a right to high-quality education and the opportunity to put their learnings into practice in the workforce. Current employment opportunities are minimal for people with a criminal record, regardless of the crime for which they were convicted and the often unavoidable conditions that led them to commit a crime in the first place. We are proud to partner with Honest Jobs, a tool that advertises over 400,000 job openings from 1,3000+ fair-chance employers who share our belief in everyone’s right to stable employment. People who’ve been incarcerated bring assets to the workforce, and they will enrich our communities if they have access to the educational opportunities and networks that we all need to be our best selves.

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