Blog Post | August 23, 2023

Higher Ed Inside: Restoring Pell Grant Access for Incarcerated Students

Author: Lydia Franz and Eric Uriegas

Edin Madrid, a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, did not grow up considering himself a scholar. “Education never even played a role in my life,” he says—until he was incarcerated.

Madrid began taking college classes in California prisons, eventually earning an associate’s degree in sociology. His exposure to higher education transformed his view of society and his place within it. “Once I started college courses in prison…the world around me started making sense. It made me realize, ‘I don’t belong in this place. I have knowledge, I can acquire knowledge, and I can do a lot more with my life.’ College was my gateway to freedom.”

Thanks to recent changes in federal law and U.S. Department of Education (ED) regulations, thousands more individuals will have access to college programs in prison as Madrid did.

On July 1, 2023, ED launched a new application for institutions of higher education to establish in-prison postsecondary programs for students who are incarcerated. Following Congress’ passage in 2020 of the FAFSA Simplification Act, which restored Pell Grant eligibility to confined or incarcerated students, the Department of Education held negotiated rulemaking sessions in 2021 to establish new guidance for Pell restoration and the expansion of prison education programs (PEPs). Published in 2022, the final regulations set standards for the development and implementation of PEPs, paving the way for enrolled incarcerated students to access Pell Grants. ED estimates an additional 760,000 individuals could eventually become Pell eligible through PEPs because of these changes.

As Pell and postsecondary education become more widely available to incarcerated students over the next year, The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) will highlight the essential work and unique challenges of PEPs, beginning with this two-part blog series offering background on Pell access for incarcerated students and PEP implementation.

Understanding Pell’s History in Prisons

Signed into law by President Clinton, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 revoked access to the Pell Grant for all incarcerated individuals and led to significant decreases in college enrollment and programming in prisons. An estimated 772 higher education programs were operating across 1,287 U.S. correctional facilities in the early 1990s, but only eight PEPs remained in operation by 1997.[1]

In 2015, ED launched the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, which enabled a cohort of invited institutions to run in-prison postsecondary programs with access to Pell Grants. The program nearly doubled the number of participating colleges within six years and allowed more than 40,000 students to access postsecondary education, leading to students earning over 12,000 credentials between 2016 and 2022.

The expansion of PEPs beyond Second Chance Pell provides new opportunities to advance educational attainment for a group of people facing significant systemic barriers to educational and employment opportunities. In 2013, researchers found participating in postsecondary education programs reduced an individual’s likelihood of returning to prison by 43 percent. A more recent analysis reviewing research to date found incarcerated students were 28 percent less likely recidivate (i.e., return to prison) compared to incarcerated people who did not participate in a PEP.

Expanding Pell eligibility will also help address racial inequities through access to education in the carceral system, which disproportionately affects people of color. A 2021 report from The Sentencing Project found that Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly five times the rate of white Americans, and Latino individuals are incarcerated in state prisons at 1.3 times the rate of white residents. Access to quality postsecondary programming supports successful reentry upon release for individuals across all racial and ethnic groups. PEPs create pathways for students to continue their education, obtain gainful employment, and contribute to their families and communities.

Although Edin Madrid did not receive a Pell Grant, he knows firsthand that increased access to higher education will unlock new opportunities for students, both while incarcerated and upon returning to their communities. He mused, “If I hadn’t gone to college when I was in prison, who knows what my life would’ve been like? It gave me the ability to do something with my life and pursue my education.”


Lydia Franz is an accountability policy associate at TICAS. Eric Uriegas is a doctoral student in Higher Education Administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Eric was a summer 2023 fellow with TICAS’ accountability team.

[1] E.C. Langemann, Liberating Minds: The Case for College in Prison (New York: The New Press, 2016).