Vera Institute of Justice Celebrates Historic Reinstatement of Pell Grant Eligibility for People in Prison

Nearly 30 years since Pell Grant access was banned, more than 760,000 incarcerated people will now be eligible for financial assistance for higher education

Contact: Hannah Eddy,

(New York, NY) - As of July 1, 2023, people in prison are once again eligible for Pell Grants, a crucial form of federal need-based financial aid that incarcerated people have been denied since the 1994 Crime Bill banned their access.

“The reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility means more people in prison will be able to afford college, more colleges will be able to launch programs in prison, and incarcerated students will have access to a greater variety of postsecondary degrees and credentials in the years ahead,” said Nick Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice. “While significant barriers to accessing college behind bars remain, this policy change brings us one step closer to making prisons places where people can learn, grow, and develop the skills they need to thrive when they return home.”

Pell reinstatement is the result of nearly three decades of research, experimentation, and advocacy on the part of formerly incarcerated people by the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) and partner advocacy groups. Vera’s own Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education initiative was an early success that inspired the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative (Second Chance Pell). Lessons learned from Second Chance Pell empowered Vera and partners to lobby Congress for the reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility, which was secured through the passage of the FAFSA Simplification Act in December 2020. The law is “sentence-blind,” meaning that all incarcerated people are eligible, regardless of conviction type or sentence length.

Widespread access to postsecondary education in prison is transformative for students, providing them with more hope for their future. College programs also make corrections facilities safer for the people who live and work in prisons. Earning a degree behind bars increases graduates’ employment and earning potential upon release and reduces the odds of recidivism by 48 percent. This saves taxpayers money and ultimately advances racial equity in our communities.

Now the work shifts to corrections departments which must prioritize their postsecondary education planning to ensure people see these benefits. Regulations from the U.S. Department of Education outline the steps colleges must follow to create prison education programs that are eligible for Pell Grant funds. Corrections departments, in consultation with key stakeholders from organizations that represent formerly incarcerated people, representatives for incarcerated students, state education offices, and college accrediting agencies, will be responsible for assessing the quality of programs operating in prison. College accreditors and the U.S. Department of Education will also provide oversight.

“50 percent of people entering our system already have a high school diploma or equivalency,” said Heather Gay, education manager for the Michigan Department of Corrections. “The reinstatement of Pell Grants will enable us to expand quality postsecondary programs in our prisons to meet the demand we see for higher education, reduce our state recidivism rate, and increase formerly incarcerated people’s employment potential. Thousands of Michigan families stand to benefit from this policy change.”

Since 2016, more than 40,000 incarcerated students have enrolled with 200 participating Second Chance Pell colleges and nearly 12,000 have earned postsecondary credentials. A variety of privately funded credit-bearing programs also offer courses, but long waitlists for most college programs demonstrate the high demand for postsecondary education behind bars.

“This policy change is a significant step in our effort to expand educational opportunities for a population that has been unjustly deprived of collegiate learning for over a quarter of a century,” said Terrell Blount, executive director of the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network. “If we can reach a point where prisons offer high-quality, equitable programs that prioritize comprehensive support systems for students, we will be setting people and families harmed by incarceration up for success and fostering safer communities.”

Vera estimates that more than 760,000 people in prison will become eligible for Pell Grants on July 1, but the number of incarcerated people securing Pell Grants and enrolling in prison is unlikely to increase immediately. Prisons will need to have approved prison education programs in operation and college administrators will need to help incarcerated students complete the Free Application for Financial Aid (FAFSA) to apply for a Pell Grant. Vera expects new prison education programs will launch later this year and in early 2024, meaning that the number of incarcerated people securing Pell Grants and enrolling in college will begin to increase in the years ahead.

Nevertheless, Pell reinstatement is a milestone Vera celebrates. The expansion of access to postsecondary education in prison is a testament to our collective commitment to ensuring equal access to education and opportunity for all individuals, regardless of their circumstances. By investing in postsecondary education for people in prison, we invest in the future of our communities.


About the Vera Institute of Justice: The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and policy experts working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. For more information, visit

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