©2019 by The Educational Justice Institute.

Taking Stock of Pell Grants Behind Bars

Vivian Nixon was a key voice in the Education Department’s decision in 2015 to reinstate Pell Grants for a limited number of incarcerated students. On Monday, the executive director of the College and Community Fellowship exhorted lawmakers to take what criminal justice reformers view as the next step: lifting the 1994 ban on federal student aid in prisons.

“To succeed after a criminal conviction, one must navigate countless hurdles and barriers,” Nixon told a roomful of supporters from higher education and corrections backgrounds. “Education is one of the most effective ways to help people negotiate that process.”


Proponents of college education in prison on Monday marked the successes so far of the Second Chance Pell pilot program, the Obama administration initiative that will soon enter its fourth year, at a convening organized by the Vera Institute. The larger goal for many in the room, though, was full reinstatement of Pell Grants for incarcerated students, a priority that many think has been advanced by the progress of Second Chance Pell. Many supporters see the personal stories of students pursuing college course work through the program as the strongest argument for reinstating federal student aid in prisons.

The initiative, which offers Pell Grants through 64 participating colleges, has proved to have staying power through part of two administrations. And it’s given advocates new ammunition to argue for lifting a quarter-century ban on the grants in prisons. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reaffirmed her support for the program at the Vera event and said it would be up to lawmakers to decide how prison education should be expanded further.


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