Unlocking Potential Initiative

Expanding high-quality postsecondary education in prison

Higher education in prison improves the quality of life behind bars and increases opportunities post-release. These benefits extend beyond those completing their education. Communities that invest in postsecondary education in prisons see taxpayer savings and improved public safety as a result of lower recidivism rates.

Broadening access to college in prison has the potential to transform families and communities and ultimately disrupt mass incarceration. Vera’s Unlocking Potential initiative promotes access to life-changing education by supporting the scale and quality of college programs and developing strategies that reduce racial inequities in college access and completion rates.

Removing policy barriers to college in prison

Recognizing the urgent need for educational opportunities for the nation’s soaring prison population, Vera partnered with select states in 2012 to help launch postsecondary education programs in prison and pilot strategies that improved student engagement and success post-release. This work inspired the U.S. Department of Education to launch the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites initiative (Second Chance Pell) in 2015. 203 colleges in 48 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, were selected to participate in the pilot by the U.S. Department of Education, with Vera providing technical assistance.

Second Chance Pell demonstrated that people in prison want and can succeed in postsecondary education, if given the opportunity, and that their educational credentials set them up for success as they reenter the community. Based on the learnings and data from Second Chance Pell, Vera and coalition partners successfully advocated for the passage of the FAFSA Simplification Act, which reinstates access to Pell Grants for eligible incarcerated students. Implemented on July 1, 2023, the reinstatement of Pell eligibility will enable tens of thousands of people in prison to access financial aid and pursue life-changing education in the years ahead.

Understanding the Impact:

colleges offered credit-bearing postsecondary education in the 2019–2020 academic year
students enrolled in college through the Second Chance Pell pilot from 2016 to 2022
people in prison who will be eligible for Pell Grants when access is reinstated in 2023
Ensuring equity in college access and completion

Preliminary data collected through Second Chance Pell suggests that prison classrooms may be more representative of Black students than are classrooms on a college’s main campus. But compared to the demographics of the prison population, classrooms in prison are generally under-representative of students of color.

As access to postsecondary education in prison continues to grow, Unlocking Potential is working to help ensure equity for students in postsecondary education in prison programs. We’re partnering with departments of corrections and colleges in Michigan, Oklahoma, and Washington to conduct equity assessments, pilot interventions, and measure outcomes.

Empowering states to lead the way

The restoration of Pell Grants holds tremendous promise for the expansion of higher education in prisons—but quantity does not equal quality. Unlocking Potential is running a professional development program for corrections education directors, partnering with college accreditation agencies, and supporting the development of state systems to oversee and ensure high-quality postsecondary education systems in prison.

  • Launched in 2021, the Corrections Education Leadership Academy (CELA) helps participants build key skills including aligning corrections policies with state workforce and educational goals, adopting innovations in adult education and workforce development, partnering with colleges and community-based organizations, addressing racial and gender equity, and using secure educational technology.
  • Unlocking Potential also works to influence standards for college-in-prison programs. Vera is partnering with college accreditation agencies and correctional accreditation committees to ensure quality measures for postsecondary educational programs align with the FAFSA Simplification Act and regulations from the U.S. Department of Education.
Learn More

Browse all Unlocking Potential publications, webinars, and videos, as well as links to relevant external sites where visitors can find more information about Second Chance Pell, Pell reinstatement, and more.

Knowledge Bank

Contact us
Ruth Delaney Initiative Director, Unlocking Potential rdelaney@vera.org (212) 334-1300
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