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Biden administration expands Pell Grant program for incarcerated students

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Prison inmates read in the library of the York Community Reintegration Center on May 24, 2016 in Niantic, Connecticut.

“This gives students who are in prison an opportunity to actually pay tuition at these programs that are going to prepare them to return to life, to find a job and to move on,” says James Kvaal, undersecretary of the Department of Education, about the Second Chance Pell program. Above, inmates read in the library at the York Correctional Institution in Connecticut in 2016. John Moore/Getty Images

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Tracy Andrus teaches criminal justice at Wiley College, a historically Black school in eastern Texas. In 2017, he helped the college start offering classes in several prisons in Louisiana. 

“We started in Louisiana because I’m familiar with the prison system there, because I spent three years in it myself,” he said.

Andrus went to prison for check fraud, and after he was released in 1994, he believed education was important.

“I knew that in order for me to climb up the ladder with this ex-felon mark in my jacket, I’m gonna need something a little bit extra,” Andrus said.

Andrus now has a Ph.D., and he wants to help people in prison also get that little bit extra. He said the college where he works relies on the Second Chance Pell program to offer classes in prison. Now, the White House is expanding that program so more schools can participate. 

“This gives students who are in prison an opportunity to actually pay tuition at these programs that are going to prepare them to return to life, to find a job and to move on,” said James Kvaal, undersecretary of the Department of Education.  

The White House is allowing incarcerated students who have defaulted on their student loans to return to good standing. Previously, if an incarcerated person had defaulted on a student loan, they were not eligible for federal financial aid, including Pell grants, according to Bradley Custer, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

“You had to pay it off, you had to get back in good standing on your loan,” Custer said. “For people in prison, that’s very hard. They obviously have no income. They can’t make payments on their loans in most cases.”

This provides a kind of fresh start for incarcerated students. 

The whole movement is a shift from where the country was nearly three decades ago, when Congress banned access to Pell Grants for incarcerated people. The Barack Obama administration started the Second Chance Pell program in 2015, and in 2020, Congress voted to restore access to all incarcerated students beginning July 2023. 

It’s important for people to understand that we can’t incarcerate our way out of the problem of crime, said Lois Davis, senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp. She’s one of the authors of a study that found incarcerated people who took part in an educational program were 43% less likely to return to prison.

“Most people that are incarcerated today will return to your local community,” she said. “So the question becomes, then what do you want that to look like for your community?”

Once people are out of prison, there are still barriers to getting work. Andrus of Wiley College, who had to fight to work in real estate after leaving prison, said states need to change licensure requirements that prohibit formerly incarcerated people from performing certain jobs. 

“If you’ve been to prison for writing checks … what does that have to do with you getting a license as a plumber? Or an electrician or a contractor to build houses?” he said. “A felony shouldn’t stop you from getting an occupational license for those types of jobs.”

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