The U.S. Department of Education (Department) tomorrow will launch a new process through which institutions of higher education can apply to offer postsecondary programs to confined or incarcerated individuals. For the first time in nearly 30 years, as a result of statutory changes enacted through the FAFSA Simplification Act, individuals enrolled in approved prison education programs (PEPs) will be eligible for Federal Pell Grants outside a limited pilot program known as the Second Chance Pell Experiment. The Department will begin accepting applications on July 3, 2023, and will approve applications on a rolling basis.
While the Second Chance Pell Experiment was a limited program, it has expanded opportunity for incarcerated individuals. According to the Vera Institute, more than 40,000 students received Pell Grants under the experiment through the 2021-22 award year. Based on current participation rates in Second Chance Pell Experiment, the Department estimates that full reinstatement of Pell could allow an estimated 760,000 additional individuals to become eligible for a Pell Grant through prison education programs once institutions have fully developed their prison programs.
“I call on colleges and postsecondary programs across our country to meet this moment and step up to serve people who’ve been impacted by the criminal justice system, who for the first time in three decades will be eligible for Pell Grants to help pay for education,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “Prison education programs reduce recidivism rates and create meaningful opportunities for redemption and rehabilitation that improve lives, strengthen communities, and reflect America’s ideal as a nation of second chances and limitless possibilities. This historic moment marks the start of a nationwide effort that could help over 760,000 individuals who are currently incarcerated pursue degrees, credentials, and skills that set them up for success and lead to brighter futures.”
Improvements to Prison Education Programs
Last fall, the Department finalized regulatory requirements for PEPs that build on the efforts of institutions and correctional facilities that have been working together to increase the number of individuals who are confined or incarcerated with access to a quality postsecondary education. Starting July 1, 2023, eligible institutions (i.e., public and private non-profit institutions) must adhere to the standards for implementing effective PEPs established under the Department’s final regulations, which:
- Establish the definition of a PEP as defined in the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA),
- Outline application requirements for approval of PEPs, and
- Clarify the requirements and obligations of institutions, accrediting agencies, and oversight entities.
Prison Education Program Application Process
Starting July 3, 2023, institutions can apply to offer a PEP through the Federal Student Aid E-App. To be considered, institutions must include their completed PEP Application Form in the E-App submission. Instructions and other information—including specific certifications and signatures that institutions provide for the Department to evaluate a PEP—are posted in an Electronic Announcement on the Federal Student Aid Partner Connect Portal. Institutions can access the PEP Application Form on the Prison Education Program topics page on the Knowledge Center.
Nearly 200 postsecondary institutions currently participate in the Second Chance Pell Experiment. Under this experiment, institutions provide Federal Pell Grant funding to thousands of students who are confined or incarcerated and previously could not access Federal need-based financial aid so that they can access, afford, and engage in higher education. Earlier this month, the Department approved more than 160 of those institutions to transition into a revised version of the experiment that allows institutions to continue serving their students who are confined or incarcerated after July 1, 2023. Institutions in the revised experiment will have up to three years to seek Department approval of the PEPs they wish to offer under the Department’s new regulations.
Benefits of PEPs
The changes announced today are part of the Department’s ongoing efforts to champion access to Federal student aid and higher education for underserved populations. Prison education programs transform the culture, climate, and safety of correctional facilities, and can provide purpose and dignity for people with long-term and life sentences, who then are the culture-bearers for those with shorter sentences.
Data shows that postsecondary programs offered in correctional facilities have also positively impacted students’ skills, future employment outcomes, and recidivism rates. For example, research on prison education programs conducted by the RAND Corporation and funded by the Department of Justice showed that prison education program participants were 43 percent less likely to recidivate and had employment rates 13 percent higher than those who do not participate, supporting their successful reentry and strengthening public safety.
High-quality prison education programs are also good for correctional facilities and their employees as jails and prisons with college programs have fewer violent incidents, creating a safer living and work environment. Prison education programs also benefit taxpayers. The RAND Corporation also found that every dollar invested in prison education programs saves taxpayers up to five dollars. Additionally, prison education programs have a powerful inter-generational effect that can transform outcomes for both learners who are incarcerated and their children and other relatives.
In today’s global economy, employment depends on 21st century skills and credentials for everyone in our workforce. Equipping learners who are confined or incarcerated with foundational skills and technical competencies will help them to earn postsecondary credentials, help them succeed and thrive during reentry, reduce incarceration costs, and maximize public safety in our communities.