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Recent milestones, beginning with the rare conviction of police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, are likely to forever change the U.S. criminal justice system. Police violence against Black, Indigenous and other Americans of color too often goes uninvestigated and unpunished. Americans of color are also more likely than white people to be targeted by the police, experience violence during these encounters and, if charged, be sentenced to prison.  

Congress’s reinstatement of access to federal Pell Grants for incarcerated students, after a 26-year ban, is another milestone. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Simplification Act will be an important source of need-based financial aid for postsecondary education in prisons when it becomes available to an estimated 463,000 people

Both events signal a long overdue redress to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. This “tough on crime” legislation, widely seen as contributing to the exponential rise in mass incarceration, also eliminated Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated adults in state and federal prisons.  

Immediately after the ban, the number of prison higher education programs fell precipitously, and the number of incarcerated students enrolled in higher education programs declined by 44 percent.  

With the restoration of Pell Grants to incarcerated students, the expectation is that the number of higher education programs will grow, benefiting students, their families and communities, as well as departments of correction (DOCs), as such programs improve prison environments.  

These benefits will only be realized, however, if the programs offered are quality programs that lead to student learning, credits and degrees. 

Related: Propelling prisoners to bachelor’s degrees in California 

Very little is known about the quality of the education programs currently offered in prisons, and there is little infrastructure in place to evaluate them. Since 1994, higher education programs in prisons have been almost all ad hoc, often developed by college and university faculty volunteering their time. The programs are frequently precariously funded and free of any systematic reporting and evaluation.  

Since 1994, higher education programs in prisons have been almost all ad hoc, often developed by college and university faculty volunteering their time. The programs are frequently precariously funded and free of any systematic reporting and evaluation.   

The restoration of Pell Grants will create a financial incentive for institutions to offer programs to incarcerated learners, who will now have access to federal funds to pay tuition, so that’s one big step forward. Yet the lack of understanding about what constitutes a quality program and how to evaluate options means that these Pell resources may not be used wisely, benefiting the providers but not the students.  

And that could mean two steps back for prison education.  

Consider the current lack of quality of some for-profit providers and online offerings, a concern mirrored across higher education. The prison situation adds another problem, which is that students in prison do not have much or any choice among programs. Nonprofit providers are not a guarantee of quality either. 

To ensure that the restored access to Pell Grants has the desired outcomes for incarcerated students, DOCs, communities and taxpayers, we need to create an infrastructure of information about higher education in prison programs so that policymakers can make evidence-based decisions about what types of programs to sponsor.  

This information should include data on curriculum, teaching methods, support programs’ effectiveness, technology use, degree completion rates and students’ transfer options on release from prison. Such information will need to be provided by the students, faculty and DOCs and shared with educational researchers seeking to understand the most effective educational opportunities for incarcerated learners.  

Just as greater video evidence (made possible by cell phones) of violent encounters between Black Americans and the police has led to greater accountability, as it did in Floyd’s case, so too will greater information about higher education programs in prisons increase the accountability of education providers.  

Information about the quality of programs is a fair exchange for increased Pell dollars. This accountability will help ensure that additional education for incarcerated learners produces the desired benefits. 

We know that increased educational attainment transforms the lives of young people and adults on the outside. It is time to embrace the possibility of transforming the lives of the currently incarcerated, along with their families and communities. 

Catharine Bond Hill is managing director at Ithaka S+R and president emerita of Vassar College. Meagan Wilson is senior analyst at Ithaka S+R. 

Ithaka S+R, with funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, launched Higher Education in Prison Research, a digital space centered around the creation of a robust, ethical and sustainable higher education in prison research infrastructure. 

This story about Pell Grants for incarcerated students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter. 

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