Washington Watch: Ban on Pell Grant eligibility for inmates lifted: What’s next?


The ban on Pell Grant eligibility for state and federal prisoners went into effect in 1994 as part of sweeping crime control legislation. It took 26 years to remove the ban. It was among the many provisions of the voluminous (5,593-page) Covid relief bill passed by Congress in December 2020. It will take another couple of years for the regulatory scheme to be put in place for Pell Grant eligibility to be reinstated beginning July 1, 2023.

In the meantime, the U.S. Education Department (ED) expanded the Second Chance Pell For Prisoners Experimental sites program through the 2022-2023 award year.

Crafting prisoner education program regulations

No doubt that opening Pell again to state and federal inmates is a strong incentive for many of them to pursue postsecondary education. But how it will all work depends on the regulations that will be promulgated as a result of negotiated rule-making. Matters involving Title IV of the Higher Education Act are subject to negotiated rule-making (commonly referred to as “NegReg”). ED, along with representatives of stakeholder groups, negotiate the proposed regulatory language. If consensus is reached, ED must publish these as final regulations, otherwise, ED is free to propose its own regulations, followed by a comment period, whereupon final rules are issued.

ED convened a non-voting Prisoner Education Program (PEP) subcommittee charged with making recommendations to the main NegReg committee. Whereas the committee, comprising 16 negotiators including ED, will hold three five-day sessions, the eight-member subcommittee will hold two three-day sessions. One of the negotiators, representing financial aid administrators, is Kim Cary of Ozarks Technical Community College in Missouri. Two of the negotiators are formerly incarcerated students.  

Specific items under discussion

The starting point is PEP must meet all existing Pell requirements pertaining to program eligibility. There are additional requirements, however. Correctional authorities, the Bureau of Prisons and state departments of correction, play a role in what programs are offered, and Pell grants cannot be used in PEPs designed to lead to a licensure for employment that preclude those with a criminal conviction.

There are numerous factors requiring codification, including: what constitutes an additional location; the allowable percentage limit of incarcerated students enrolled; how to define quality indicators of eligible programs; clarification of how accreditation procedures apply; enabling a smooth transition for Second Chance Pell participating programs; and developing disclosure and reporting schema.

The first session, held last month, had an impassioned discussion on virtually every aspect of the proposed regulations for reinstating Pell eligibility to incarcerated individuals. The definition of an incarcerated person was discussed; should individuals who are involuntarily confined under a civil commitment order be eligible, for example. The role of federal and state correctional departments on approving PEPs was questioned. Other topics discussed included the definition of additional location and the proposed quality of PEP metrics. Some frustration was expressed about the non-voting status of the subcommittee’s members.

The next session is scheduled for this week.

Second Chance Pell experiment expanded

The Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative was launched under the Obama administration in 2015 and has been expanded twice by subsequent administrations, most recently by the Biden in July.

This expansion is intended to allow up to 200 postsecondary institutions to offer prison education programs with support from the Pell Grant program, an increase from the 131 current participating institutions, including many community colleges. Two community colleges with a long history of providing education to prisoners and Second Chance participants are Alvin Community College (Texas) and Jackson College (Michigan).

From a criminal justice perspective, the program has been demonstrably successful in that correctional facilities with prisoner education programs are safer for both incarcerated individuals and staff and lower recidivism rates for program participates. According to a Vera Institute assessment, for every $1 invested in prison-based education, taxpayers save $4 to $5 from reduced recidivism costs.

The benefits of education extend beyond the prison walls. Program participants improve their employment opportunities and experience smoother re-entry than their incarcerated counterparts who did not engage in prison education. 

Other prison education-related developments

Some interesting developments are occurring in the postsecondary education of prisoners.

In anticipation of the reinstatement of Pell eligibility for prisoner education, a higher education focused philanthropic group recently announced a two-year, $4.7 million Ready for Pell strategic initiative. The initiative will award grants up to $125,000 for single or consortia of postsecondary institutions to establish prisoner education programs.

Both Maryland legislative chambers passed a diminution credits law that awards credit for inmates who complete a certificate, diploma, or degree program. This is distinct from “good time” credits. For each program completed, incarcerated individuals will have his/her sentence reduced by 60 days, except for those serving a sentence for a violent offense, in which case their sentence will be reduced by 40 days. 

About the Author

Jolanta Juszkiewicz
is director of policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.
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