Pell Grants May Not Meet Incarcerated Students’ Financial Need, Research Shows

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

In just a few months, Pell Grants will be widely available to eligible incarcerated students who were previously restricted from accessing grants due to a federal ban implemented in 1994. As students and institutions prepare for this change, new research highlights the experience of incarcerated students with the Second Chance Pell Experiment and gives recommendations on how to improve the program.

The 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act included a provision that restored Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students and established participation requirements for institutions operating prison education programs. Since then, the Department of Education (ED) announced in August 2021 that it would be expanding its Second Chance Pell Experiment — which officially launched in 2015 — by inviting new educational institutions to participate in the program, allowing up to 200 two- and four-year colleges and universities to provide Pell Grants for their programs. 

New research from the University of Utah examines data from institutions participating in the Second Chance Pell Experiment, and how incarcerated individuals who received Pell Grants through the experiment fared. In 12 issue briefs, researchers addressed several topics, such as administrator perceptions and practices regarding which applicants can participate in Second Chance Pell, administrators’ thoughts on the costs of operating prison education programs, and more. 

Looking at data from four institutions participating in the Second Chance Pell Experiment from 2017-21, researchers found Pell recipients made up the overwhelming majority of the institutions’ total enrollment, at 85%. Erin Castro, associate dean of communities engagement and access for undergraduate studies at the University of Utah and co-author of the research briefs, said it’s part of a trend that programs operating in prisons are largely Pell-dependent, especially at two-year institutions. 

“This means that staff are enrolling incarcerated people who are eligible for Pell,” Castro said. “While it’s certainly state- and institutional-contextual, there isn’t great diversity of funding streams to support the cost of attendance for incarcerated people.”

But that increase in the enrollment of Pell students in prison is problematic, she said, because it is not happening alongside increases in student support structures, staffing, and general resources to address the demands of an increased student population that faces unique needs. In one brief, the researchers noted that aid administrators and program practitioners interviewed indicated that the Pell Grant does not cover the full cost of student attendance (COA), even at two-year institutions. 

“There seems to be a general sentiment among policymakers and people unfamiliar with the costs of higher education that the Pell Grant is sufficient to fund prison higher education,” Castro said. “This simply isn’t the case, and is a dangerous assumption for such a vulnerable group of students in a rapidly changing context. The Pell Grant isn’t sufficient to cover the COA for any college student — incarcerated or not.”

Looking at completed degrees and certificates between fall 2017 and fall 2021 for four institutions, another brief notes that 146 Pell recipients enrolled at the four institutions earned 176 credentials. Career and technical certificates, such as technical diplomas or vocational awards, made up the majority of all credentials earned using Pell funds, at 51%. Additionally, 37% of credentials earned using Pell funds were associate of arts, science, or general studies degrees, and 10% were bachelor’s degrees. Associate of applied science or professional studies degrees made up 2% of all credentials.

The brief also examines completion data from the first cohort of Pell recipients at each of the four institutions. For instance, one public two-year institution had its first cohort of 122 students in the 2016-17 academic year, with 7% earning a degree, 8% completing a certificate, and 13% completing a credential. By comparison, 40% of the first cohort of 20 students at a four-year institution — which didn’t offer certificates or credentials — earned a bachelor’s degree.

However, Castro notes that there’s a need for more data on how Second Chance Pell students are faring. For example, she said incarcerated students should be included in standard federal reporting requirements. She added that her research team was disheartened to see the final regulation not require institutions to identify incarcerated students.

Additionally, Castro said the information about prison education programs is self-reported mainly by non-incarcerated practitioners and there are concerns about credibility. Student experience is rarely included in reporting in any meaningful way, Castro added, and there are real obstacles to ethically gathering these kinds of data.

“Our research demonstrates that administrators need support and desire guidance in developing effective practices regarding data collection on incarcerated students and those with incarceration and/or criminal record histories,” Castro said. “It was incredibly difficult for our team to calculate completion rates among our small sample, indicating that institutional staff aren’t yet well-equipped to do this work or aren’t already doing it.”

Castro adds that while ED estimates that 2% of the 1.6 million incarcerated adults will participate in Second Chance Pell, she anticipates this number to be much higher.

“It’s worth noting that many public commenters to the negotiated rulemaking expressed concerns that application and reporting requirements will discourage more institutions of higher education from participating — and we agree,” Castro said. “Institutions of higher education that think Pell from incarcerated students will be a revenue generator will hopefully realize that they need much more than Pell just to cover the staffing required to comply with new regulations, unless of course they are going to provide a substandard version of their offerings for incarcerated students.”

To that end, NASFAA convened a working group of practicing financial aid administrators and individuals knowledgeable of the federal Second Chance Pell experimental site initiative to examine the challenges that incarcerated students may face throughout the FAFSA completion process. The result of the group’s work was published last month in a report that identifies promising practices learned through Second Chance Pell and recommendations for institutions, Congress, and the Department of Education.

According to the report, incarcerated students faced a number of challenges when completing the FAFSA to determine aid eligibility due to a lack of access to personal files and tax records, difficulty rehabilitating defaulted federal loans, and limited access to phone and email to obtain and communicate with family members about necessary documentation, among other things. 

While the report notes that while some issues with Second Chance Pell are expected to be mitigated due to provisions included in the FAFSA Simplification Act and a number of departmental initiatives, challenges still remain.

For example, one recommendation is that ED remind institutions of existing authorities to assist students who struggle to access personal, parent, or spouse information that is required when submitting a FAFSA or completing verification. The report also notes that  Congress could consider making statutory changes that allow married incarcerated students to be considered single.

Another recommendation is for ED to provide flexibility to simplify the verification process and resolution of student eligibility issues for incarcerated students because incarcerated students often lack the internet and phone access to complete verification. That also includes a recommendation for Congress to eliminate the Statement of Educational Purpose as an eligibility requirement for incarcerated students.

In terms of data collection concerns which Castro noted, the NASFAA working group recommends ED collect data and evaluate the process by which state department of corrections are selecting students to enroll in prison education programs, with a goal of ensuring the selection process is equitable.

Additionally, institutions should develop COA for prison education programs in a manner that “appropriately accounts for the constraints and challenges of postsecondary enrollment within a prison setting,” which means eliminating fees that are not applicable or accessible to the incarcerated student and developing a standardized charge to cover the costs of necessary course materials, among other things. 

“Although new challenges will likely arise as Pell Grants and postsecondary education options become more widely available to incarcerated students, developing solutions to the challenges already identified by the Second Chance Pell experiment must also be a key focus of ED’s implementation efforts,” the NASFAA report states.


Publication Date: 1/24/2023

Tracy B | 1/25/2023 8:53:29 AM

If the pell grant is not helping inmates achieve degrees and certificates while in prison, the answer is to cancel the program, not throw more dollars at it.

Darren C | 1/24/2023 9:40:18 AM

Reading this is disappointing and ultimately not surprising in so many ways. The prison systems in this country are big business. Large investments and profits are made year after year to ensure we have full prisons. “Rehabilitation” has been a very small part of what comes out of this investment and appears to not be the honest intention based on the track record.

That said, throwing taxpayer funded Pell Grants into the mix does little to nothing to address the bigger issues here. However, there seems to be no problem with signing it into law. Another example of irresponsible policy makers willing to justify funding under the umbrella of “education”. It’s sad to think “There seems to be a general sentiment among policymakers and people unfamiliar with the costs of higher education that the Pell Grant is sufficient to fund prison higher education,”.

Struggling, hardworking families often must pay their way through the mounting costs of education for decades while the incarcerated are being given taxpayer funds to in almost all cases based on the stats unsuccessfully pursue secondary education. Hearing that there is little chance of success “because it is not happening alongside increases in student support structures, staffing, and general resources to address the demands of an increased student population that faces unique needs” tells us all we need to know. Another program that requires spending, yet the core of what it needs to succeed hasn’t even been put into place. A band-aid for a large wound.

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