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How to Make the Most of Renewed Pell Grant Eligibility for Incarcerated Students

July 1, 2023

At a Glance

Access to federal financial aid for people who are incarcerated is just a start. Let’s harness this momentum to make more far-reaching improvements in postsecondary education programs.

Contributors
Rebecca Villarreal Senior Director
Practices & Centers

Today, advocates for reform and expansion of prison education programs are celebrating an important victory: After a nearly 30-year ban, Pell Grant eligibility has been restored for people who are incarcerated. This means an estimated 760,000 individuals who are serving sentences will now have access to federal financial aid to pursue postsecondary education. But the work continues.

We must harness this momentum and launch broader efforts to normalize opportunity for people with records. That means evaluating and reforming all policies that indefinitely penalize people with a conviction history.

Give Students Options

And to ensure that restoration of Pell Grant eligibility has the biggest possible impact on work and learning, we must specifically examine current and proposed postsecondary prison education programs with a renewed focus on building equitable opportunities for advancement and creating an educational ecosystem that offers learners a rich array of options so they can choose pathways that best match their goals and interests.

Too often, programs are developed without input from students and without an understanding of their needs and goals, and these programs lack clear pathways to credentials and quality jobs.

To give students real opportunities to build the skills and knowledge they need to advance economically, education and training programs should provide access to high-quality learning and career preparation experiences that are available not just in correctional facilities but throughout people’s lifetimes. These programs should also include academic and career advising services.

Get All Stakeholders Involved

To achieve these goals, advocates must use this moment of Pell restoration to push for broader systems change and deeper collaboration across all stakeholder groups, including departments of corrections; the administrators, faculty, and staff of institutions of higher education; accrediting agencies; policymakers; and prospective students and alumni.

When all concerned parties work together, the effects can be far-reaching. Successful graduates improve their chances of landing quality jobs, and they gain stronger senses of self-confidence and self-esteem. High-quality education and training programs can also have positive impacts on local economies and communities, and corrections officials report that facilities with strong programs have safer environments for residents and workers.

The full benefits of restoring Pell Grant access to individuals who are currently incarcerated will only become clear when all stakeholders collaborate to improve and expand learning opportunities and look further to reform all policies and norms that limit access to quality jobs and career opportunities for people with records.

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