As part of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, Congress rescinded Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated people. Prior to 1994, incarcerated people who met the low-income requirements of Pell eligibility could receive the Pell Grant to pay for higher education. Since the full lifting of the ban on Pell Grant distribution announced in 2020, there have been widespread discussions about how equity, inclusion, and access to higher education will be restored and even broadened.
In partnership with the National Alliance for Prison Higher Education and the University of Utah Prison Education Project, the Possibility Lab examined data from two sources to better understand how the return of Pell Grants to incarcerated people might affect equity in access to higher education.
- The Landscape Survey, conducted via email by the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, was distributed to leaders of prison higher education programs across the country. The survey contained 93 questions, both closed- and open-ended, about college-in prison programs during the 2018/2019 academic year. The Landscape Survey was distributed to a total of 131 programs, and had a response rate of 45.8% (60 programs).
- In addition to survey data, we employed targeted interviews conducted during the summer of 2020 with a subset of 12 leaders through the Higher Education in Prison Program Cohort Program. Interviews were semi-structured and focused on several general areas of conversation, including programmatic challenges, funding, and future opportunities or areas of growth. The interviews were conducted via Zoom, then transcribed and coded by members of the research team.
Our analysis suggests that the return of Pell to incarcerated students is likely to radically alter the landscape of postsecondary educational opportunity during imprisonment, with potentially significant implications for racial and socioeconomic justice. Specifically, we highlight three distinct and pressing challenges for the field of higher education in light of Pell restoration, and which the Pell Grant alone cannot address. These are related to: 1. access to funding other than FAFSA, including college/university specific scholarships; 2. administrative sustainability and key stakeholder alignment on program vision and offerings, and 3. access to student support services.
The history of Pell Grants in funding higher education in prison is popularly understood as a story of tragedy: when Pell Grants were available to incarcerated people, higher education in prison thrived. When they were pulled from prisons, programs disappeared, with some programs being described as closing virtually overnight.
In contrast, the return of the Pell Grant for people who are currently incarcerated is a victory hard fought by activists, directly impacted communities, and supporters and practitioners in the field of education. Yet our results suggest that the effects of Pell reinstatement on access to higher education will ultimately depend on whether it is accompanied by investments in a broader range of institutional infrastructures and resources. Consistent and adequate funding to support college coursework and programming offered inside prisons has been, and remains, a persistent challenge for the field. However, it will take broader investment than Pell by itself can offer to adequately and responsibly support the growth and quality of higher education in prison programs.
This project was made possible with funding from the Ascendium Education Group, ECMC Foundation, Laughing Gull Foundation, and the Lumina Foundation.