Final regs on Pell grants for prison ed


The U.S. Education Department (ED) on Thursday released final regulations that will usher the reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility for individuals in prison that is set to begin next summer.

More than 760,000 people in prison will be able to apply for Pell grants starting July 1, 2023, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, which has strongly advocated for reopening the grants to incarcerated individuals. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) also has supported the effort.

AACC will provide an analysis of the regulations in the coming days in CCDaily’s Washington Watch column. The association in August submitted formal comments on the department’s proposed regs. A central focus of those comments was on the role that “oversight entities” — such as state corrections agencies or the Federal Bureau of Prisons — would play in approving prisoner education programs.

The new regs, in part, detail the process that public and private, non-profit institutions new to prison education must follow in order to start programs in prison after Pell eligibility is reinstated, and they outline the roles of corrections departments, ED and accreditation agencies in assessing and/or approving prison education programs.

“Access to college in prison makes corrections facilities safer for the people who live and work in prisons, improves students’ sense of worth and skills, reduces the odds of recidivism, increases graduates’ employment and earning potential on release, and ultimately advances racial equity in our communities while saving taxpayers money,” Vera Institute said in a statement.

For 22 years, between 1972 when the federal Pell Grant program was enacted, and 1994, low-income students, even those incarcerated in state and federal prisons, could access Pell grants to pay for their college education. In 1994, at a time of rising crime rates in the U.S., legislation passed that amended the Higher Education Act to ban prisoners from receiving Pell grants.

In 2015, ED started a pilot program to gauge how effective allowing prisoners to use Pell grants to attain a higher education would be in reducing recidivism. Many community colleges are involved in the department’s Second Chance Pell program, which serves individuals incarcerated in state and federal prisons so that they can enroll in postsecondary programs offered by local colleges and universities.

Enrollment in postsecondary education programs has shown to reduce incarcerated individuals’ risk of returning to prison by 28%, and reductions in recidivism also imply improvements in public safety, according to ED.

In 2020, Congress passed legislation that re-established eligibility for incarcerated individuals enrolled in eligible prison education programs to receive Pell grants.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.