Appropriations Act Restores Pell Eligibility to Incarcerated Students, Establishes Eligibility Guidelines for Prison Education Program

By Megan Walter, NASFAA Policy & Federal Relations Staff

The 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act included a provision that restored federal financial aid eligibility for incarcerated individuals and established participation requirements for prison education programs. Until the act was signed in December, incarcerated students were prohibited from accessing Pell Grants under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

Similar to the “Second Chance Pell” experimental site offered by the Department of Education’s (ED) Experimental Sites Initiative, any institution wishing to participate in the Prison Education Program would need to meet an extensive list of requirements. Proprietary schools, regardless of their ability to meet the requirements, are prohibited from participating. 

Institutional Requirements

Institutions that are interested in participating will need to meet an expansive list of requirements, aimed to ensure that quality educational programs are being offered to students and that these programs would allow students to be successful post-release. Institutions must be approved to operate in a correctional facility by the institution’s State Department of Corrections or the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which would also be charged with determining that the institution is operating in the best interest of students. That determination may be based on:

  • Rates of confined or incarcerated individuals continuing their education post-release

  • Job placement rates

  • Earnings

  • Rates of recidivism

  • The experience, credentials, and rates of turnover or departure of instructors

  • The transferability of credits for courses available and the applicability of such credits toward related degree or certificate programs

  • The offering of relevant academic and career advising services to participating individuals, while they are incarcerated, in advance of reentry, and upon release

The programs must also offer transferability of credits to at least one institution of higher education in the state in which the correctional facility is located, or in the state in which most individuals upon release will reside. The institution must not have been subject in the last five years to any suspension, emergency action, or termination of programs, any adverse action by the institution's accreditation agency or association, or any action by the state to revoke a license or other authority to operate. The institution also must satisfy any applicable educational requirements for professional licensure or certification, and may not offer education to incarcerated individuals that is designed to lead to licensure or employment for a specific job or occupation in which employment typically has prohibitions on the licensure or employment of formerly incarcerated individuals.

Institutional Annual Reporting

Institutions eligible to participate in the Prison Education Program will also be required to submit reporting to ED on an annual basis related to the activities assisted and students served under the program, which shall include the following information, as applicable: 

  • The ability of confined or incarcerated individuals to access and complete the FAFSA;

  • In-custody outcomes and post-release outcomes related to providing federal Pell Grants to confined or incarcerated individuals, including attainment of a postsecondary degree or credential, safety in penal institutions with prison education programs, the size of waiting lists for prison education programs, the extent to which such individuals continue their education post-release and employment and earnings outcomes for such individuals, and rates of recidivism; 

  • Tracking individuals who received federal Pell Grants at one, three, and five years after the individuals’ release from confinement or incarceration; and

  • Reentry or relevant career services provided to participating incarcerated individuals as part of the prison education program and the efficacy of such services, if offered.

Student Eligibility

Incarcerated individuals must also meet a few requirements to be eligible for Pell Grants while enrolled in a Prison Education program. The Consolidated Appropriations Act defines an incarcerated person as someone who is serving a criminal sentence in a federal, state, or local penal institution, prison, jail reformatory, work farm, or similar correctional institution. Those that meet this definition would be eligible to receive federal Pell Grants, as long as they are enrolled in an eligible prison education program and meet the other requirements for Pell Grant eligibility. 

The allowed cost of attendance (COA) components for an incarcerated student are expanded from only tuition, fees, books, and supplies to also include course materials, equipment, and the cost of obtaining a license, certification, or a first professional credential. 

Early Implementation

The Act allows the Secretary of Education to implement Pell Grant-eligible prison education programs before (but not later than) July 1, 2023. 

Next Steps

As ED begins working toward implementation, NASFAA, with the help of important expertise from members of the aid community involved in the Second Chance Pell program, will be available to help ensure a smooth implementation that promotes postsecondary access and success for the incarcerated student population. NASFAA will also continue to partner with other organizations whose expertise centers around Second Chance Pell, prison education programs, and serving incarcerated students.

Have comments or suggestions about implementation of Pell Grant-eligible Prison Education Programs? Send your thoughts to [email protected].


Publication Date: 1/26/2021

Cristi M | 1/26/2021 6:11:10 PM

This is an interesting change - especially for those of us who are part of the Experimental Site for Second Chance Pell. I am waiting to see the guidance that we get for those schools.

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