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Pell is Not Enough…For Any College Student

One of the most profound policy changes in U.S. higher education is happening right now. In 2020, in an end-of-year bipartisan spending bill, congress lifted the ban on Pell Grant distribution for eligible people in prison. The legislation amends the 1965 Higher Education Act to restore Pell Grant eligibility for eligible incarcerated people who are enrolled in an approved prison education program. What is an ‘approved prison education program,’ you ask? Well, you can read more about that here as we wait for the Department of Education to release final guidance from the negotiated rulemaking.

Several serious and nuanced questions remain ahead of the expansion of Pell Grants for eligible incarcerated people. Administrators at institutions of higher education, prison program practitioners, and most importantly – incarcerated applicants and students – are desperate for guidance and timely information about how best to implement changes from FAFSA Simplification Act in the prison context. And as I’ve argued elsewhere, Pell expansion will bring new challenges for this vulnerable and rapidly changing field, particularly in the context of racial and socioeconomic equity.

Our team engaged directly with these questions in our national project, Pell is Not Enough: Exploring the Experiences of Participants in Second Chance Pell. We spent three years examining the implementation and facilitation of the Second Chance Pell Experiment commenced in 2019 and includes data collected from staff, students, and alumni affiliated with nine higher education institutions. The series title represents a general theme that runs strongly throughout the research, pointing to a reality that practitioners of prison higher education must address: that is, the Pell grant, in and of itself, is insufficient to address inequity issues in participation nor provide high quality postsecondary education and student services during incarceration. Perhaps this isn’t a surprising finding for many of us concerned with issues of access to postsecondary education; we’ve long known that the Pell Grant falls short of covering the costs of attendance for any student, let alone an incarcerated one. Yet, the narrative that Pell Grants will resurrect prison higher education relies on just the opposite – and there are reasons to be concerned.

Whether it’s incarcerated students sharing experiences of using personal funds to purchase necessary supplies, or practitioners making the difficult decision to prioritize Pell-eligible students to cover tuition costs, or higher education administrators needing additional staff to timely facilitate federal student aid at penal facilities, Pell is Not Enough captures the sentiment of participants affiliated with 9 colleges and universities thus far involved in the federal Experiment. We provide empirical evidence gathered from over 100 incarcerated students and alumni and non-incarcerated alumni, 20 practitioners of prison higher education, and 12 higher education administrators in the offices of financial aid, admissions or enrollment management, and registrar or related unit. With a reduced sample, we draw from disaggregated student-level information to calculate the total number of Pell recipients during a truncated timeframe and estimate their total share of overall enrollment. Using these data, we examine Second Chance Pell recipients by sex, race, and age, and whether participants in the first cohort ultimately earned a credential. Finally, we examine which, if any, credential(s) incarcerated participants earned using the Pell grant.

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Last Updated: 12/5/23