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‘Transformative’: More College Programs are Slowly Coming into Prisons

Reinstating federal Pell Grants for incarcerated students comes with steep challenges.

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When the U.S. Department of Education announced last summer that federal Pell Grants would become available to incarcerated college students, lawmakers and state corrections agencies scrambled to adjust statutes and step up potential partnerships with universities.

But nearly a year later, colleges and agencies are recognizing the steep administrative challenge to winning approval from the U.S. Department of Education. So far, just one new program eligible for the federal financial aid grant — in California — has gotten off the ground.

“We’re going to see an impact — it’s coming. It’s been a bit slow to arrive because of this quality focus within the regulations,” said Ruth Delaney, who leads a program at the Vera Institute of Justice to help scale up college programs in correctional institutions. “What’s great is that there’s a lot of energy in colleges and corrections to start new prison education programs.”

Pell Grants were officially restored for incarcerated students in July 2023, following a nearly 30-year federal ban that prohibited most incarcerated students from receiving the aid. The ban was one of the provisions in the sweeping signed by President Bill Clinton.

More than 750,000 incarcerated students could potentially become eligible for Pell Grants. But to qualify, they must be below the family income limits and be at a prison that offers a college program approved by the federal Department of Education.

To date, only one has been fully approved, at Pelican Bay State Prison in northern California. Students there will be eligible to receive Pell Grants starting next fall to study for a degree in communications from California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt.

Still, officials from state corrections agencies in Maryland, Michigan and Wisconsin told Stateline that since Pell dollars became available, more colleges and universities have become interested in establishing prison education programs. Since last summer, 44 state corrections agencies and the federal Bureau of Prisons have applications or other systems to approve prison education programs, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

“There are people in prison who have been waiting 30 years for this opportunity to come back, and they are just so eager to enroll,” Delaney said in an interview. “Anything we can do to move quickly to get high-quality programs in place — that’s what we’d like to see.”

State action

The Pell Grant, awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, is provided to low-income students across the country to help cover college expenses. Most students apply online using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Incarcerated students are usually required to submit paper applications because internet access is restricted. The current maximum grant is $7,395 for a full academic year.

While states pay to house incarcerated people in their prison systems, many don’t pay for higher education; prison college programs often rely on alternative funding, such as donations and state grants. Some are a part of a federal pilot program called the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, which has included about 40,000 incarcerated learners. Otherwise, students have to pay out of their own pockets or use scholarships and donations from nonprofits and colleges.

No matter how it’s paid for, the goal of providing college-level instruction in prisons is to make it easier for incarcerated people to reenter society once they are released and to connect them to meaningful, good-paying jobs.

“College saved my life. It was a place where I could be free. I could read, I could learn, and I could grow. It was very transformative for me, and I realized that my life wasn’t over,” said Alexa Garza, who obtained two associate degrees and a bachelor’s degree while incarcerated in Texas. Garza now works as a Texas policy analyst and higher education justice initiatives analyst for The Education Trust, an education access advocacy group.

Prison education advocates say it’s important for schools to expand the college experience in prison beyond just offering classes. That means fostering meaningful relationships between professors and students.

“I didn’t have family in the courtroom. I had professors in the courtroom,” said William Freeman, who served time in Maryland and now leads the Justice Policy Fellowship at The Education Trust. “Now, I’m a first-gen everything — college graduate, homeowner. I don’t think my parents ever made the kind of money I’m making now.”

Many state lawmakers have worked, with varying outcomes, to boost prison college programs in anticipation that Pell Grants could help more incarcerated students earn degrees.

In Washington state, for example, a set to take effect in June will allow more incarcerated learners to seek both federal and state financial aid grants to cover the costs of postsecondary education programs.

Maryland’s legislature has sent Democratic Gov. Wes Moore a that would require that the state corrections department help incarcerated students in accessing Pell Grants and set goals for participation. Moore’s office said the legislation is under consideration.

A Florida that would have allowed students to be eligible for in-state tuition even if they had been incarcerated in the state in the past year made it out of House and Senate committees but was tabled before the legislature adjourned.

And in Montana, lawmakers state corrections officials after a found that prison education and workforce programs are limited, featuring long waitlists and inequitable access between private and public facilities.

New programs and partnerships

Corrections agencies and colleges in several states have recently announced new partnerships, with some soon to become Pell-eligible.

Maryland’s corrections department recently with the University System of Maryland to provide incarcerated students with the opportunity to obtain bachelor’s degrees or credit-based certificates from any of the 12 system universities. The university system will also be able to accept Pell Grants.

Danielle Cox, the state corrections department’s education director, said she aims to have a college or university program at every state facility by 2027.

In Utah, female incarcerated students at the Utah State Correctional Facility can apply to a new bachelor’s program at the University of Utah through the school’s Prison Education Project. At least 11 of 15 prospective students already have received their admissions decisions, according to Erin Castro, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Utah and co-founder of the Prison Education Project.

“This is the first time that the flagship public institution is admitting a currently incarcerated cohort,” Castro said.

The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services and Southeast Community College are to offer more higher education opportunities to students in five state facilities. The college enrolled 229 students this spring semester, and also is working on gaining the federal approval to offer Pell Grants as an official prison education program.

The college now offers an associate of arts degree in academic transfer, and in the fall will offer an associate of applied science in business and more career and technical education programs.

Bureaucratic barriers

But navigating the new application process from the U.S. Department of Education has required significantly more administrative labor, some advocates say.

At least one university so far has decided to pull the plug on its prison education program. Georgia State University cited the feds’ new rules for Pell Grants and a $24 million budget cut as reasons to this summer, according to Open Campus, a nonprofit news outlet that reports on higher ed. The program has been in operation since 2016.

“The shape and tenor of this new system is causing significant damage to the framework of college-in-prison,” Jessica Neptune, the director of national engagement for the Bard Prison Initiative at Bard College in New York, wrote in an email to Stateline.

“Much of the recent policy work related to Pell, especially, is moving in a direction that makes it harder and harder for colleges to just be colleges and not criminal justice interventions,” she said.

The Department of Education did not directly respond to advocates’ concerns about the new application requirements, but said it held a “negotiated rulemaking process that enlisted significant stakeholder input to put forward the best regulations possible.”

Some prison education advocates also argue that the new bureaucratic process isolates the mission of educating incarcerated students from that of other students and encourages the “othering” of current or formerly incarcerated individuals.

“Whenever we are creating separate systems for individuals — particularly when they’re incarcerated — that reinforce processes, isolation and marginalization, it is not going to go well,” said Dyjuan Tatro, a senior government affairs officer with the Bard Prison Initiative and a Bard College alum.

“Incarcerated students should have the same access to Pell Grants, full stop, as any other students in this country,” Tatro said.

is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Scott S. Greenberger for questions: info@stateline.org. Follow Stateline on and .

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