Filling Out the FAFSA Behind Bars

For most prospective students seeking federal financial aid, completing the FAFSA form is a tedious process. It’s far more onerous for incarcerated students.
Nazish Dholakia Senior Writer
Nov 01, 2022

Next year—for the first time in nearly three decades—all incarcerated people who are academically eligible will be able to apply for Pell Grants to help fund their college education. This hasn’t been the case since 1994, when the Crime Bill banned incarcerated people from receiving this federal financial aid. In 2020, Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act, a landmark package of legislation that restores Pell eligibility to people in prison and significantly changes the FAFSA form and the methodology by which aid is determined.

Pell Grants are currently available to some incarcerated people through the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell (SCP) Experimental Sites Initiative. But one of the first steps to access these grants is completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form—a form that was not designed with incarcerated students in mind.

Incarcerated students completing the FAFSA for SCP college programs have encountered numerous challenges. Vera estimates that more than 760,000 people will have the opportunity to pursue postsecondary education in prison once the FAFSA Simplification Act is fully implemented in 2023. With such monumental changes on the horizon, applicants, colleges, and advocates working with students in prison are eager to see changes to the FAFSA and the process by which incarcerated applicants receive financial aid.

Completing the FAFSA, which currently asks 103 questions, can be a painstaking process for anyone seeking financial aid for college. Those difficulties are compounded for incarcerated students. Incarcerated applicants are often completing the paper form, and this alone can make the process more onerous. For example, the web version of the form automatically skips questions that don’t apply to users and checks for contradictory answers. The paper version obviously doesn’t offer those options.

Financial aid administrators at colleges that run prison education programs take various approaches to guiding students through the FAFSA completion process. Some financial aid administrators mail forms to incarcerated students, which can be a slow process. Others set up in-person meetings with students. They acknowledge that it can take several one-on-one meetings over several months for incarcerated students to complete a form that could otherwise take students who are not incarcerated less than an hour.

“It’s a really complex process for us to be able to do what’s necessary to get the information that’s needed to complete the FAFSA,” said Keyimani Alford, dean of student access and success at Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin, which currently offers postsecondary education programs at eight prisons across the state through SCP, with plans to expand. “There can be a lot of red tape we have to get through to support that student.”

Financial aid administrators say that one of the greatest pain points for incarcerated people filling out the FAFSA is that, if they are under the age of 24, they are classified as dependents, and therefore must provide their parents’ tax return information. This can be especially challenging if prospective students are not in contact with their parents or cannot reach them from prison.

The FAFSA Simplification Act will reduce the number of questions on the FAFSA for all applicants, from 108 in 2020 to 36 by 2023. Some positive changes through this law have already taken effect, like removing the requirement for men under the age of 26 to have registered with the Selective Service System to receive financial aid. The FAFSA also no longer requires applicants to provide information about some drug-related convictions, which previously made certain applicants ineligible to receive federal student aid. But the Department of Education has also missed opportunities to tweak the form for this student population—an action that would likely increase access to college in prison.

A FAFSA form for incarcerated students will be made available in November, but the form is identical to the form for other students. The only difference is the P.O. Box where the application is sent. Advocates have requested that the form be tailored to incarcerated students, but those changes are unlikely, at least until the general FAFSA form is shortened. Even then, it is still unclear how much the burdens on incarcerated applicants will be eased.

“Getting it right, so that students become eligible in an easier way is important,” said Matt Moore, the assistant vice president for enrollment operations and student services and the financial aid director at Sinclair Community College in Ohio. Sinclair has offered education programs in Ohio’s prisons for years, but those programs have been funded through state dollars. This year is the first time that Sinclair, as a new SCP site, is awarding Pell Grants.

“[A Pell Grant] really is in some cases all an incarcerated student has to pay for their education,” Alford said. “That’s only going to increase their access to different employers and jobs based on the education and training they’re receiving while incarcerated, which makes it so much easier to do life again once they’re released.”

The U.S. Department of Education can remove barriers that make it difficult for incarcerated students to access aid if they can’t locate a parent or spouse’s tax return. It also can ensure that future changes to the FAFSA form make it less burdensome for incarcerated people to complete. Whether the Department of Education will, however, is another question.

“What do those students really need?” Moore said. “Let’s carve out separate rules and allowances.”

Other financial aid administrators agree. The FAFSA for incarcerated applicants should be adapted to recognize their specific circumstances and challenges, so students in prison aren’t excluded from receiving this much-needed source of financial aid.