Pell Grants Program for Prisoners: Barely Scratching the Surface

education in prison

The reintroduction of Pell Grants for prisoners this year is a long-overdue gift from the U.S. Department of Education. Ever since Pell Grant opportunities were stripped from prisoners during the tough-on-crime initiatives of the mid-90s, everyone from prisoners and those who care about them, to prison administrators and the education community have waited patiently for those with the power to change this policy to finally see the light and bring back education funding for the part of society that arguably needs it most of all.

When the Second Chance Pell Grant Pilot Program was launched last month, there was an instantaneous collective 'it's-about-time' rejoice as those in-the-know recognized that society can once again reap the undeniable benefits of providing prisoners with equal opportunities to learn a more effective way of life. Recidivism rates within three years of an educated prisoner's release drop by almost half, while for every dollar invested in that education, four to five dollars are saved on just a few years of reincarceration costs. Just as quickly as prisoners across the nation and their loved ones learned of this incredible opportunity, however, they let out frustrated sighs as they realized they would not be eligible to participate.

Unlike Pell Grants for students on the free side of the wall, where virtually anyone who cannot afford schooling can receive a grant, the Second Chance Pell Grant Program is only available to a relatively insignificant number of prisoner students. There are 2.3 million people incarcerated in this country. Of those, only 11,695 are eligible to participate in this program this year -- roughly half of one percent of the total prison population.

"I've been looking for ways to afford classes for the last six years," expressed Jesse F., an Oregon prisoner. "I was really excited when I heard that Pell Grants would soon be an option. But now they're here and I found out that I'm not eligible because I've got more than five years to go, and evidently I'm not housed in the right prison!"

The current program does indeed require that consideration be limited to prisoners within five years of release. In part, this is so that those evaluating this program can learn of its effects on the recidivism rates for educated prisoners. But the more pronounced roadblock that prisoners are encountering is that the program itself is very limited. Where traditional Pell Grants can be used for correspondence and online education, the Second Chance Pell Grants for prisoners can only be awarded to students who happen to live in a prison whose education department is supported by participating local colleges approved under the program. If the local college does not hold classes in their prison, no one in that prison is eligible for a Pell Grant.

Of the more than 2,000 prisons across the U.S., only 174 prisons in 27 states host Pell Grant-eligible opportunities for prisoners -- less than ten percent of prisons. Further, many states receive a wildly disproportionate distribution of these funds. For instance, of the 48,000 prisoners in the Illinois system, only an almost negligible 86 prisoners will receive financial aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education -- less than one-fifth of one percent.

Searching through the list of schools participating in the program, some schools jump out at you, such as Auburn University and Villanova. The fact that a prisoner can earn a Pell Grant-funded college degree from these schools is impressive. Upon a closer look, though, only 20 and 25 students respectively are eligible for each of these programs. In Alabama, home of Auburn University, these 20 fortunate students are the only prisoners eligible to earn a degree in the entire state of 30,000 prisoners. More prisoners are, however, eligible to earn certificates of completion for vocational studies in this state -- 536 total, still a small number at less than two percent of Alabama prisoners.

23 states housing over a half-million prisoners offer zero Federal Pell Grant funding options for prisoners at all. Of the remaining states that do offer financial aid opportunities, a prisoner must essentially win the prison version of the lottery to be able to participate.

The primary reason for the limited number of funding opportunities for prisoners is that this is a program that, according to Congressional decree, is not supposed to exist in the first place. The 1994 Higher Education Act (HEA) that banned Federal Pell Grant funding for prisoners is still in place. It will remain so until Congress lifts that ban. But within the Act rests an "experimental" clause authorizing the Department of Education to try new concepts to increase education in this country.

Therefore, the Department used its authority to bring Pell Grants back to the prison population as an experimental "Pilot Program" to test whether more prisoners would sign up for education while behind bars if given access to financial aid. It's not much of an experiment really, since they already know of the benefits of prisoner education. (See 'Pell Grants for Prisoners: An Experiment or a Demonstration?') But this was a way to get the foot in the door to potentially expand the program in a way that every prisoner who wants to better their lives could participate.

While very few prisoners will be able to take advantage of this program at this early stage of its revival, education opportunities do exist for all prisoners today. While finding the necessary funds to afford such options can be challenging, prisoners can earn anything from a high school diploma to a master's degree right from their cells through correspondence options independent of the prison itself. While the Second Chance Pell Grant Pilot Program is a great start on the road to one day providing overall education funding opportunities that will benefit prisoners and those who care about them, its nationwide impact will likely not be felt for many years. Fortunately, however, prisoners can still explore other education options right now that will greatly enhance their chances at a successful reentry and future back into American society.

Prison Lives ( is a non-profit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals while incarcerated for a positive existence both inside and outside of prison life.

Prison Lives has just released a comprehensive 500+ page book, Prison Lives Almanac: 2016/2017 Prisoner Education Guide detailing the schools who work with prisoners and their wide array of options.

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