The Pell Grant Is Expanded to Include Incarcerated Students

April Mihalovich
January 8, 2021

About the Pell Grant

Established in the Higher Education Act of 1965, the Pell Grant is the primary form of financial aid provided by the federal government for students pursuing a college degree. The Grant is awarded for students who express financial need through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Typically, the Grant is given to undergraduate students, but can be applied for certain post-undergraduate degrees as well.

The most compelling part of the Pell Grant is that, unlike many other federal or private student loans, the Grant does not need to be repaid. Thus, it is a beneficial source of payment for students from low-income households who may be struggling to fund their college education.


The limitation for incarcerated students’ eligibility for the Pell Grant arose under the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act drafted by incoming president Joe Biden. This Act, known to many as the “Crime Bill,” is responsible for the institution of well-known sentencing policies such as “three-strikes” rules and “truth in sentencing” to encourage tough-on-crime policies. While there have been efforts to reform some of the effects of the Act that have contributed to 21st century mass incarceration in the upcoming Biden Plan, the limitation of Pell Grant eligibility for the incarcerated has been often overlooked.

The Second Chance Pell Program was created under the Obama administration in 2015 and expanded since by the Department of Education. This program functioned to monitor whether interest in higher education from incarcerated people increased when the financial aid provided by the Pell Grant was offered. Over 12,000 students took part in the test program spanning from 2016 through 2020.

For the past 26 years, the limitations on Pell-grant eligibility from the 1994 Crime Bill have excluded those who have been convicted of a drug offense, or those who are incarcerated, excluding over 700,000 potential students. With the new Ombnibus Spending and COVID-19 relief bill signed into law as of Dec 21, 2020, that will change.

What Will Change?

Now that the COVID-19 relief bill has passed, here’s what we can expect to change in 2021 and 2022.

The most promising part of the COVID-19 relief bill for the Pell Grant is the ban on eligibility for incarcerated students or students with prior drug charges. Students in college or university programs that operate in conjunction with the prison system are now able to receive federal student aid through the Pell Grant, which has many positive implications for incarcerated students.

The maximum Pell Grant amount will also be increased so that low-income students now have the chance to receive $6,495 in the next year. Additionally, the Bill resets the 12-semester limit on receiving the Pell Grant for students whose colleges have been closed during the pandemic and are forced to transfer.

Positive Impacts of the Expansion of Prison Education

The benefits of the expansion of the Pell Grant to incarcerated students lie not only in the accessibility of higher education, but the advantages that incarcerated students will have upon their release by earning a degree.

This November 2020 study by the Vera Institute outlines the benefits of Pell Grants for the incarcerated, and how to implement such a program to maximize success in this population.

The study discusses the primary benefits to prison education, and some of the pillars which such programs should follow to ensure success. Among the key benefits to creating accessible education programs for the incarcerated are increased opportunities for employment upon release and reduced recidivism for those with a post-secondary degree.

Additionally, it is important to consider the disproportionate prison population of people of color. Providing more availability for education in prisons is a start at creating a more equitable opportunity upon release for people of color who might otherwise be at a disadvantage in the job market due to their status characteristics.

The Pell Grant expansion in the COVID-19 relief bill is a promising step toward achievable higher education in the prison system. However, it is just one part of a program that requires thoughtfulness, funding, and the cooperation of the Department of Corrections and higher education institutions.

How these programs are implemented is important to consider when creating and refining prison education programs. Are there enough available resources for incarcerated students to succeed in their classes? Is the environment created for these students, such as study rooms or quiet spaces, conducive to learning? Do incarcerated students have access or help or supplemental learning to be prepared for assessments? There are many factors that can make attaining a college degree difficult, so in their formation prison education programs should be built to eliminate as many of these difficulties as possible.

Effects of the Expansion of Prison Education

While there are many benefits to the expansion of the Pell Grant for incarcerated students, there are also consequences to the availability of higher education in the prison system. Even when relief is provided through a Pell Grant, there is often still a gap between the rising cost to attend class and the resources that may be available to incarcerated students.

Providing an expanded opportunity to enroll in a college or university program also encourages and normalizes taking out student loans while in prison. This can create an overwhelming financial obligation for incarcerated students upon graduation. Upon release, incarcerated students with tremendous student loans may have increased pressure to seek employment quickly or will not have the savings necessary to pay off student loans.

As a result, many programs in place - whether remote online or in-person instruction - may lack the quality necessary to be a beneficial education for students. With the resource constraints that many underfunded prisons face, it is impossible to imagine that students receive the hands-on, challenging, and impactful education for which they are paying. New programs should consider how they can implement remote or in-person instruction at a reasonable volume that can ensure individualized attention and learning.

What is Next?

With the expansion of the Pell Grant Program to include incarcerated students, it is likely that both opportunities for education in the prison system and the number of Pell Grant applications will rise. While it is impossible to know the long-term effects of the Pell Grant implementation for incarcerated students, it is likely that this Grant may see additional restructuring in its funding if the demand for Pell Grant relief continues to increase.

The inclusion of incarcerated students in eligibility for the Pell Grant will draw more attention to the available college and university programs in the prison system. With added scrutiny on the success of these programs and their students, hopefully more funds will be allocated to the development of prison education programs and availability of resources to ensure success for students and graduates.

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