Congress Should Reinstate Pell Grants for Incarcerated Students

Preventing those behind bars from accessing higher education is not only a relic of the “tough-on-crime” ’90s — it’s bad for public safety.

March 21, 2019

Nationally, 95 percent of people in prison today will be released at some point and re-enter their communities. How they spend their time behind bars — and how that time does or does not prepare them for that return — is an increasingly urgent issue, both from a humanitarian and public safety perspective. As we argued in Ending Mass Incarceration: A Presidential Agenda, improving access to correctional education must be part of the solution and is something that the President and lawmakers should take on.  

Unfortunately, while prison education has been proven to reduce recidivism — and give people a better life even while they are behind bars — only about 9 percent of the incarcerated population receives a certificate from a college or trade school while in prison.  

This isn’t an eligibility or interest problem. Instead, it’s an access problem. The current federal ban on those in prison receiving Pell Grants means that those who want to take a class must do so either with their own money or private institutional funds. The time has come to repeal this senseless and insensitive policy — and give incarcerated students everywhere a chance to pursue higher education.

Pell Grants, which are the largest federal aid program for postsecondary students in the United States, provide nearly $30 billion in grant aid each year to 8 million low-income students. Incarcerated students were able to benefit from the program for decades, but that changed when Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (the infamous “1994 Crime Bill”), which also amended the Higher Education Act of 1965, making it so that no currently incarcerated individual can be awarded a Pell Grant.

The ban was premised largely on fear and false claims about prisoners taking federal money away from “law-abiding students,”[1] and its effect was swift and profound. Overnight, postsecondary education became prohibitively expensive for incarcerated students.

Why should we care? Increasing educational opportunities for those who are currently incarcerated benefits not only them, but the public. A study by the RAND Corp found that people in prison who participate in higher education and training are significantly less likely to be incarcerated again. Other studies have reflected similar patterns: a recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice found that reinstating access to Pell Grants would create a “domino effect” in which formerly incarcerated people, having taken college classes made possible by Pell Grants, would be less likely to re-offend and more likely to look for work post-release.

The federal government has already taken small, though significant steps toward this end. Since 2015, close to 10,000 students have received student aid under the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, an experimental program set up by the Obama administration designed to circumvent the Pell Grant ban. However, with more than 2 million Americans behind bars, temporary solutions are not enough. Consistent with our Presidential Agenda, Congress should remove the ban outright.

In recent years, the movement to remove the ban has gained momentum and support on both sides of the aisle, including that of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who described reinstating Pell Grants as “a very good and interesting possibility.” Congress has taken note, too. The Restoring Education and Learning Act (REAL Act), initially introduced in 2015, would reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for individuals incarcerated in federal and state prisons. And while it didn’t pass in the last session, the REAL Act is expected to be reintroduced this Congress. Legislators are even now searching for additional support for the legislation, hoping for strong bipartisan support.

The REAL Act could be a bipartisan victory on prison reform that many legislators are looking for after last year’s FIRST STEP Act. Moreover, given the FIRST STEP Act’s provisions for “recidivism reduction partnerships” with higher education institutions, Pell Grant reinstatement could be an important part of enabling incarcerated students to take advantage of educational opportunities.

To be sure, the REAL Act wouldn’t reduce our still-oversized prison population. But it would nonetheless be an important step toward ending mass incarceration. By expanding access to postsecondary education for incarcerated students, we can start to change how we as a society think about prisons and reentry.



[1] Ames C. Grawert, Education for Liberation: The Politics of Promise and Reform Inside and Beyond Americas Prisons, ed. Gerard Robinson and Elizabeth English Smith (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 87.