Advocating for Second Chance Pell

ACCT holds a congressional briefing on the benefits of postsecondary education for incarcerated students and expanding access to federal financial aid .

Community colleges are at the forefront of providing educational and training opportunities for millions of students. This includes providing education opportunities for currently incarcerated and justice-involved individuals. Pell Grants once helped fund postsecondary education for incarcerated individuals. This federal support helped lay the ground work for prison education programs provided by community colleges and other higher education institutions. But in 1994, broad crime legislation barred the use of Pell Grants for incarcerated students. This past February, ACCT with the American Association of Community Colleges and the Los Angeles Community College District, hosted a congressional briefing to discuss the benefits of postsecondary education for incarcerated individuals and federal policy options to expand postsecondary access for this population. The briefing highlighted evidence from research, student experiences, and views of community college leaders. Speakers included:

·     Sean Addie, U.S. Department of Education;

·     Ruth Delaney, Vera Institute of Justice;

·     A formerly incarcerated student;

·     Molly Lasagna, Tennessee Higher Education Initiative;

·     Dr. Daniel J. Phelan, Jackson College, MI; and

·     Mike Fong, Board of Trustees, Los Angeles Community College District.

The ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students has persisted despite mounting evidence from research and individuals’ experiences showing the transformative effects of postsecondary education for incarcerated individuals. According to a recent study by researchers at the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, restoring Pell Grant access for incarcerated students would increase their employment rate by 10% and their earnings by $45 million in the first year after release. The same study demonstrates that greater access to postsecondary education would reduce recidivism and decrease states’ incarceration costs by over $365 million per year.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education partially lifted the ban through the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative. Currently, the Second Chance Pell Program is operating at 65 colleges, including over 30 community colleges. The program serves over 5,000 students per semester and over 1,000 credentials have been awarded to date. While the experimental sites initiative is not expected to end soon, the Department of Education is not accepting any new college participants. In Congress, lawmakers have sought to restore Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students through the REAL Act. The bill will likely be reintroduced this congress.

Beyond the economic impacts, participating in postsecondary education can open new doors of opportunity for individuals who were formerly incarcerated. During the briefing, a formerly incarcerated student described his experience of starting postsecondary education while incarcerated and continuing his education after his release. He is now a graduate student in Tennessee and works as a student advisor. 

This article was revised on Septemeber 12, 2019 to remove sensitive information.

Allison Beer is the senior policy analyst for ACCT. She can be reached at

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