Second Chance Pell: Five Years of Expanding Higher Education Programs in Prisons 2016–2021

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The Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, launched by the U.S. Department of Education in 2015, provides need-based Pell Grants to people in state and federal prisons. The initiative examines whether expanding access to college financial aid increases incarcerated adults’ participation in postsecondary educational opportunities. This report summarizes the fifth year of the experiment using survey data collected from 64 of the participating colleges. The FAFSA Simplification Act, signed into law on December 27, 2020, lifted the ban on federal Pell Grants for incarcerated students, which had been in place since 1994. Once it takes effect, all incarcerated people will be eligible to apply for federal aid by the 2023–2024 academic year.

The Vera Institute of Justice provides technical assistance to the participating colleges and corrections departments to ensure that the programs provide high-quality postsecondary education in prison and after release.

Key Takeaway

Postsecondary education in prison contributes to successful reentry for people who have been incarcerated and promotes public safety.

Publication Highlights

  • Even with substantial decreases in the prison population across nearly every state, student enrollment continued to increase in 2020–2021.

  • Although there continue to be racial/ethnic disparities in enrollment, credential achievement is in line with the racial and ethnic demographics of the student population.

  • Changes due to COVID-19 are anticipated to have a permanent impact on modes of instruction, with more colleges moving toward distance learning or hybrid models.

Key Facts