Increased Financial Aid Access Bolsters Incarcerated Adults’ Successful Reentry, New Data Finds

Related Topics in the Ref Desk: Pell Grant

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Incarcerated individuals who participated in postsecondary education — many with the help of federal financial aid — were 48% less likely to return to prison, according to a new analysis from the Vera Institute of Justice.

The results come from survey data collected in December 2020 from administrators of 59 colleges that have participated in a Department of Education (ED) initiative that provides need-based Pell Grants to people in state and federal prisons.

Prior to congressional restoration of federal financial aid eligibility for incarcerated individuals through the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act, ED in 2015 launched a Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, aiming to test if participation in high-quality education programs increased after expanding access to financial aid for incarcerated individuals.

The program at the end of the 2019-20 financial aid year operated in 30 states and has enrolled more than 22,000 students over its first four years.

Survey results from 2020 found that as incarcerated people achieved higher levels of education, the likelihood of recidivism decreased. The report’s authors argued that every dollar invested in prison-based education yields $4 to $5 in taxpayer savings from reduced incarceration costs.

Additionally, prisons with postsecondary education programs were found to have fewer violent incidents than those without, resulting in safer working conditions for staff and safer living environments for incarcerated people.

The data also reflects on how the pandemic has impacted access to the program.

During the spring 2020 semester — when the federal government declared the pandemic a national emergency — survey data found that 63% of programs modified their regular instruction delivery models, for example, from face-to-face to distance learning. Only 14% terminated their semesters. During the summer 2020 semester, 39% modified their instructional models and 32% terminated the semester.

In the fall 2020 semester, 61% of programs modified their instruction delivery and 17% terminated the semester. Approximately 22% to 24% of programs never modified or terminated their semesters for various reasons; some already taught through distance learning, some did not have courses scheduled for the disrupted term, and some were able to continue face-to-face instruction.

In some cases, the pandemic created incentives for corrections officials to expand the use of technology in ways that were not previously permitted, allowing programs to adjust and continue.

Prior to the pandemic, 78% of programs were using a face-to-face instruction model; during the pandemic, that decreased to 4%. Conversely, the use of distance learning models — including hybrid, synchronous, and asynchronous models — increased from 22% to 75% (the remainder either suspended courses or did not report).

However, the survey found these changes might be temporary. Once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, 64% of programs plan to return to a face-to-face delivery model and another 15% plan to use a hybrid model — an increase from the 4% using hybrid models prior to the pandemic, suggesting that some programs will be permanently shifting to a combination of face-to-face and online learning.

The Vera Institute of Justice is urging policymakers to promote higher education access for incarcerated individuals, citing concerns over being prepared for post-release jobs and successful reentry.

“Seventy percent of all jobs in 2027 will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school,” the report said. “However, only 11% of incarcerated people in state prisons and 24% in federal prisons currently meet this requirement.”

Authors of the analysis further urged policymakers to use their data as a guide for what implications the federal restoration of the Pell Grant and expansion of higher education access could mean for incarcerated students.


Publication Date: 4/28/2021

Nichole Davis M | 4/28/2021 10:41:27 AM

Are we still prohibiting students with drug related convictions to access federal funding? What would be the likelihood of recidivism for this population of students if this rule was changed?

David S | 4/28/2021 9:42:05 AM

This is so important and such good news. We would be a healthier, more productive society if our prisons focused on rehabilitation rather than suppression (and there are certainly other major changes to make to our justice system, but I'll stay on topic). Educating those who are incarcerated or justice-involved should be a no-brainer.

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