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  • Writer's pictureSusan Rohwer

Knowledge Is Power: 8 Things Incarcerated Individuals Need To Know About Pell Grants

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

It's never too late to go back to school. Recently, the federal government made that more of a possibility for incarcerated people by making Pell Grants available to those in prison. This means more opportunities to earn degrees and professional certificates in careers from carpentry to case management.

But there are things to know about the Pell Grant reinstatement and how working with the Reentry Campus Program (RCP) can set you up for success.

1. What are Pell Grants?

Pell Grants are special need-based federal financial aid students can use to pay for college courses. And unlike student loans, they do not need to be paid back.

For decades, people in prison could tap into the grants to help offset the cost of college. That ended when failed “War of Drugs” era policies like the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 banned incarcerated individuals from receiving Pell aid, shutting out thousands of students and closing down hundreds of prison programs.

2. What’s changed about Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals?

Thanks to advocacy by organizations like the Reentry Campus Program and others, partial eligibility was reinstated in 2015 with the Second Chance Pell experiment. The pilot gave grants to incarcerated students in about 70 postsecondary prison education programs. The U.S. Department of Education expanded that number to 200 for the 2022-’23 award year.

According to data from the nonprofit research and policy organization Vera Institute of Justice, over 40,000 students at 75 colleges participated in postsecondary education because of funding through Second Chance Pell between 2016 and 2022.

But as of July 1, 2023, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA Simplification Act, incarcerated students are once again eligible for Pell funding under specific requirements. The restored Pell Eligibility means more than 760,000 people in prisons can eventually afford higher education.

3. Why should I consider post-secondary education?

There is tons of research on how prison education programs reduce recidivism. And the benefits spread from individuals to families and communities from increased self-confidence to earning potential.

Here are some numbers: More than 610,000 people return to communities from state and federal prisons annually, whether ready to get a job or not. But this is where post-secondary education comes in. A 2018 meta-analysis found that rates of employment post-release increase by 12% for individuals who participate in any correctional education.

Plus, you have to be ready for the jobs of the future. Most jobs that provide a living wage require some form of career-connected post-secondary education. This trend isn't going away. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 70% of jobs require education or training beyond high school by 2027.

Reentering society after incarceration is hard enough with a criminal conviction; a degree or specific certification offers a critical leg up for those returning home. Studies suggest that taking any coursework while incarcerated results in a 43% less likelihood that a formerly incarcerated person will return to prison.

4. What should I know before I apply for a Pell Grant?

“Have a plan,” says Page Pena, Program Director of Reentry Campus Program. Pena emphasizes the importance of sitting down with an advisor, like those at RCP, to help you make informed decisions about your path through secondary education.

Think strategically about your skill sets, what you’re passionate about pursuing, and what course requirements you need to fulfill for a degree that can get you on a productive career path once you get out.

Pena cautions against ending up with what she calls “credits to nowhere” when students have a collection of unrelated course credits that can’t build toward earning a degree. These “credits to nowhere” can also lead students to run out of financial aid without a degree to show for it.

RCP can help you access free courses to maximize any funding you receive. Still, that kind of navigation is where planning is vital.

Planning your educational path can help maximize any funding you qualify for and ensure you’re being strategic about how your education can work for your career. Research suggests that education programs with more direct content or skills linked to job training positively impact reentry.

RCP can also be that bridge connecting your coursework inside to finishing once you reenter your community, which is when formerly incarcerated people fall off their education pathway. Working with Reentry Campus Program gives you that continuity that will help you both get ready to meet your basic needs once you’re out, but plan how to continue coursework to get your degree to land a job.

There’s also this FAQ from College Inside that has a lot of answers to other questions you might have about Pell Grants.

5. How do you apply for Pell Grants?

You will need to complete an online or paper FAFSA Form.

To be Pell-eligible, the applicant must demonstrate exceptional financial need, be a U.S. citizen or an "eligible noncitizen" (most commonly a permanent resident with a "green card," but there are other categories as well), pursue a degree or certificate in an approved program, and not have earned a bachelors, graduate or professional degree.

Reentry Campus Program can assist with putting the documentation together you’ll need to fill out a FAFSA form.

6. What if I have defaulted on my loans?

Before you apply for any federal student loans you will need to get in good standing with any previous loans you have had. This is why getting out of default has become an urgent issue for those trying to access financial aid from Pell Grants because defaulted loans will prevent you from qualifying for federal student aid through loans or grants.

But there is help available. Connecting with a pathway coordinator at Reentry Campus Program will help you navigate the steps to bring any defaulted loans into good standing. They can help you take advantage of opportunities like the Fresh Start program, "a one-time temporary program from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) that offers special benefits for borrowers with defaulted federal student loans." There are multiple steps to the Fresh Start program, but RCP is free and will help get you on the pathway to good standing on your loans.

You can also send a letter to deal with a loan in default. Write to P.O. Box 5609, Greenville, TX 75403. In your letter, include your name, social security number, date of birth, address of your facility, and the following: “I am a confined or incarcerated individual. I would like to use Fresh Start to bring my loans back into good standing.”

7. Don't give up.

"Some people may not read well or feel like bad students," says Thomas Harmon, a graduate of Roger Williams University, former Reentry Campus Program student, and now Pathway Coordinator for RCP. "But I'm an example of how you can get out and do well."

Harmon says self-confidence may discourage incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people from looking into post-secondary education.

"They think college seems like something that's not for them. But if you see yourself in a certain industry, ask yourself how furthering your education helps get you there. Perhaps you need to brush up on your math and English to become a better communicator. Or be able to understand certain subjects so you can get certified to work with HVAC systems or whatever else you want to pursue once you get out."

"When I got involved in Reentry Campus Program, I was on the street and thought that school was not for me. I had children by then and thought maybe it was for someone younger. So, my priorities were to support my family."

"There's a lack of belief in oneself. That's a major barrier because someone who believes in themselves and has a good sense of self-worth can stick to anything. The Reentry Campus Program is a free resource offered by those who have walked the same path you've walked. We're here to empower you and help you build your self-worth through education."

"Knowledge is power," Harmon says, "the more you know, the more you can do, the more freedom you have."

8. You don’t have to do this alone.

The Reentry Campus Program is here to help you navigate the system of getting into school, paying for school, deciding which pathway through education makes sense for you, and continuing your studies as you reenter your community.

Here’s how to reach us:

From behind the walls:

  • Write us: Interdepartmental Mail Education Unit, DIX Bldg Reentry Campus Program

From beyond the walls:


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