The Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, launched by the U.S. Department of Education in 2015, provides need-based Pell Grants to people in state and federal prisons. The initiative tests whether expanding access to college financial aid increases incarcerated adults’ participation in postsecondary educational opportunities.
A report by the Vera Institute of Justice summarizes the fifth year of the experiment using survey data collected from 64 participating colleges. The report found evidence that postsecondary education in prison contributes to successful reentry for people who have been incarcerated and promotes public safety.
The FAFSA Simplification Act, signed into law on December 27, 2020, lifted the ban on federal Pell Grants for incarcerated students that had been in place since 1994. All incarcerated people will be eligible to apply for federal aid by the 2023–2024 academic year.
Over the past five years, 28,119 unique—or “unduplicated”—students have enrolled in postsecondary education through the Second Chance Pell Initiative. In that time, more than 9,000 students have earned either an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, or a certificate or diploma, including more than 1,900 credentials earned in the past year.
People who participate in postsecondary education in prison describe the experience as transformative. They become positive role models in prison and develop new perspectives and goals. Seventy percent of all jobs in 2027 will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school.
However, only six percent of incarcerated people have attained an associate’s degree or higher compared to thirty seven percent of non-incarcerated people. Incarcerated people who participate in postsecondary education programs have 48 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not.
Prisons with postsecondary education programs have fewer violent incidents than prisons without them, creating safer working conditions for staff and safer living environments for incarcerated people.
Postsecondary education is a primary avenue for upward mobility—especially among people of color, who are disproportionately represented in the prison population. Additionally, postsecondary programs during or after prison provide people with knowledge, skills, and connections they can use to benefit their children and families, multiplying the impact of a single college degree.
By the end of the 2020–2021 financial aid year, Second Chance Pell programs were operating or launching in 42 states, Washington, D.C., and the federal Bureau of Prisons. During that year, 11,849 students enrolled in Second Chance Pell. Most students have been in programs held in state prisons.
For 2020–2021, the states with the most programs were New York (13), Texas (9), Kansas (8), California (6), and Maryland (6), while Texas, Ohio, Arizona, Georgia, and Missouri had the most students.
This year, Georgetown University began a bachelor’s degree program for 25 students in a Maryland prison called Patuxent Institution. With support from federal Pell grants, it is expected to grow to 125 students within five years.
When the inaugural class graduates in spring 2026, the Jesuit university wants a full-dress commencement within the prison like Wednesday’s ritual at Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup. The event was believed to be the first commencement to confer bachelor’s degrees inside a Maryland prison in at least 25 years, reports the Washington Post.
James Jackson, one of the four Maryland graduates, savored his first commencement. “It makes me nervous,” the 57-year-old confessed beforehand. “I also feel very proud about it. It took a little over eight years to get accomplished.” Jackson, who is serving a life term for murder, had graduated cum laude — with distinction — in 2021 through Goucher College’s program inside prisons, but the commencement was delayed a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.