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Unlocking potential for incarcerated people through Pell Grant reinstatement

Access to education upholds human dignity while building safer, stronger communities.

Photo illustration by Alex LaSalvia.Eros Hoagland/Nicolas Maeterlinck/Getty Images

This month, the federal government lifted the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated people, marking a legislative achievement almost 30 years in the making.

Research shows that when done right, access to education for those behind bars makes communities safer and saves money, offering benefits for all. With more than 610,000 people returning to communities from state and federal prisons each year, easier access to postsecondary education will mean more people will come home with the skills and credentials to secure living wage jobs and establish careers, offering them the chance they deserve to build a future for themselves and their families. It also reduces the odds of returning to prison by 48%, and every dollar invested in prison-based education yields $4 to $5 in taxpayer savings from reduced incarceration costs. The wealth of evidence to support college in prison has led to sustained bipartisan cooperation at all levels of government.

The moment demands that public leaders work with urgency to remove existing barriers and develop the infrastructure necessary to support the ambitious goals of reinstatement.

This policy change is the result of decades of joint work by formerly incarcerated people, advocacy groups, and government and civil society leaders. The success of the Vera Institute of Justice’s own Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education initiative helped inspire the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative (Second Chance Pell), a prelude to the complete reinstatement. Over the Second Chance Pell program’s first six years, more than 40,000 students enrolled in postsecondary education at 200 participating colleges. Most of these programs have long waitlists, demonstrating the appetite for education among the more than 760,000 incarcerated people who are set to become eligible when the ban is lifted.

To make good on the victory Pell reinstatement represents, we must maintain a national will and commitment from policymakers and civil society.

While the Biden administration’s Department of Education has taken important steps to prepare for reinstatement, there’s still a long way to go. As the operator of the largest network of prisons in the country, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) should be at the forefront of expanding college in prison, but there has been a disappointing lack of movement so far. Currently, just 12 of BOP’s 122 facilities provide access to Second Chance Pell, and only 14 colleges can offer postsecondary education programs to these students.

Without a plan for expanding high-quality postsecondary programs, the BOP will continue to be underrepresented in this nationwide opportunity, and thousands will be denied the chance to earn a degree. This inaction doesn’t just shortchange the people who can enroll — it costs families, communities, employers and taxpayers across the board who would otherwise be benefitting from more people using their education to secure employment and contributing to their communities upon release.

At the state level, only 10 state corrections departments have issued applications to invite colleges to teach in prison under the new regulations. Other states need to act to expand the number and type of colleges given the programs’ proven benefits. Developing and executing a plan to recruit colleges often requires forethought and coordination, but every day states delay the release of their applications marks another day colleges cannot launch programs and eager potential students are denied access to opportunity.

Colleges and universities can — and must — also lead by investing in prison-based campuses as part of the college infrastructure. This includes investing in academic advising, career counseling, and financial aid services like students on a traditional campus can access. On main campuses, colleges should make every effort to support formerly incarcerated students. The Biden administration’s Beyond the Box guidance offers excellent recommendations, like refraining from collecting criminal legal information in admissions, accommodating parole and probation requirements, and proactively offering support for securing housing (including on-campus), food, employment, mental health services and financial aid .

Despite these holes in implementation, there are encouraging signs. State legislatures have introduced innovative measures recently that are worth replicating. In Colorado, some incarcerated people who pursue an education can reduce their prison sentences. Following recent successes in New Jersey and Michigan, Oklahoma is considering a law to grant people in prison access to state financial aid.We’re also seeing noteworthy collaboration. Tennessee, Colorado and Georgia are among a handful of states with consortia made up of colleges, formerly incarcerated people, corrections departments, and reentry organizations working together to support incarcerated people as they enroll in college, complete their degrees on campus, and secure jobs. That’s real, equitable, sustainable change with far-reaching positive public safety implications.

Reinstating Pell Grants behind bars upholds human dignity while building safer, stronger communities. Inaction could undermine this hard-won bipartisan achievement at a heavy human and economic toll. The moment demands that public leaders work with urgency to remove existing barriers and develop the infrastructure necessary to support the ambitious goals of reinstatement. We owe that to incarcerated people, to ourselves, and to the future of the communities we share.

Nicholas Turner is president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice.