Financial Aid Options for Incarcerated Individuals

The door to college financial aid for people in prison is opening. The FAFSA Simplification Act, part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, will expand eligibility for the federal Pell Grant to include incarcerated students. These students will be able to take advantage of the grant — which provides need-based aid to students from low-income households — by July 2023.

Though federal student loans are unavailable to individuals confined in an adult correctional or juvenile justice facility, Brian Walsh, senior program associate for the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, says expanding Pell Grant eligibility will lead to more educational programs for incarcerated students across the country. This expanded eligibility will affect students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, starting October 2022 for the 2023-2024 school year at the latest.

“It’s a huge opportunity for corrections and colleges to work together to do this right,” Walsh says. “The secretary of education has the option of implementing this sooner. Every year we wait is another thousands of people who go without an opportunity to do this. We have this deadline to implement, but there’s the possibility and likelihood that it could happen sooner than that.”

Until then, federal financial aid remains unavailable to most incarcerated students and can also be limited for individuals upon release. Adults convicted of possession or sale of illegal drugs may have their future award eligibility suspended if the offense took place while they were receiving federal student aid. Those who have been convicted of a forcible or nonforcible sexual offense and are subject to an involuntary civil commitment after their incarceration are not eligible for the Pell Grant.

[Read: How Drug Convictions Affect Student Loans.]

In light of these barriers, currently incarcerated students affected by the justice system may be able to find funding through college programs, an experimental federal program, state aid and scholarships.

College in Prison Programs

Some colleges and universities across the nation offer free programs in prisons, like the New York-based Bard Prison Initiative of Bard College, which captured the public’s attention following a PBS documentary series, “College Behind Bars.”

Another example is the Georgetown Prison Scholars Program at the DC Jail. The program provides Georgetown University courses to incarcerated individuals at the facility. Tuition is waived for these students, says Marc M. Howard, a professor of government and law and director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown, and program offerings typically include courses in subjects like English, music, philosophy and government.

Access to these types of programs can be limited by location and the number of open program slots, experts say.

“Most prisons do not have anything,” Howard says. “Most programs are run by either organizations or universities that are in proximity. When there are facilities close to cities or universities, there is a higher likelihood of there being a program. Prisons in the middle of nowhere, which is sadly the vast majority, have no learning opportunities.”

Second Chance Pell

Georgetown’s program is an example of a newly chosen Second Chance Pell site, where participants in the program receive Pell Grant funding in an experimental capacity ahead of the wider expansion of eligibility anticipated by July 2023.

There are 130 colleges and universities in 42 states and Washington, D.C., selected to participate in the Second Chance Pell program, an experiment announced by the U.S. Department of Education in 2015 that gives eligible incarcerated individuals access to the Pell Grant to pursue higher education while in prison.

“Right now, most (incarcerated) people get into education because of luck,” Walsh says. “You happened to be in prison at that time and you happened to be near a college that is participating in Second Chance Pell.”

But that will change with the expansion of Pell Grant eligibility, hopefully leading to higher quality programs, he says.

“We have no engineering programs in our prison systems. We know how transformative getting a bachelor’s degree can be and its value in the workforce. Now we can have two-plus-two degrees with community colleges and four-year institutions working together,” Walsh says.

“They were sort of possible under the experiment, but you never knew if the experiment was going to end or continue. Now it’s much easier to build long-term plans. Now it becomes really possible because we have a dedicated, stable, predictable source of funding to build the kind of partnerships to make that possible,” he says.

State Financial Aid

For students enrolled in college education programs in prison or who have prior criminal convictions, eligibility for state financial aid varies depending on where they live.

[Read: Ban the Box: Opening the Door to College for Felons.]

“Incarcerated students and students with certain drug-related convictions are most commonly excluded from state aid programs,” according to a 2020 resource created by the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based nonprofit that tracks state education policies. “In these states, system-impacted students must use other funding sources to pay for college.”

A 50-state comparison conducted by ECS, titled “State Financial Aid Barriers for Students Impacted by the Justice System,” found that in 17 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, there are no restrictions on eligibility for students who are impacted by the justice system in their two largest financial aid grant programs.

“There are a lot of doors that can close for students and people generally upon re-entry out of prison in general society. This one might not be one that’s closed, depending on the state you live in and the program you are seeking to be eligible for,” says Sarah Pingel, senior policy analyst at ECS. “Many students re-entering could have the assumption that there is no financial aid for me because of my past history, but many of the programs we found, that actually isn’t true.”

Walsh also notes that other changes in the FAFSA Simplification Act may indirectly open up state financial aid options to incarcerated students because some states require that an individual be eligible for federal financial aid to receive state financial aid.

Scholarships for Children of Incarcerated Parents

Financial aid resources are also available for students with incarcerated parents.

The National Children of the Incarcerated Scholarship Program, part of the Creative Corrections Education Foundation, has provided more than 181 college scholarships to children with incarcerated or paroled parents across the country. Undergraduate scholarships are either $5,000 or $1,000, and students can find the application on the foundation’s website.

[Read: How to Find and Secure Scholarships for College.]

There are also numerous regional scholarships for children with incarcerated parents, such as the examples listed below.

Ava’s Grace: Provides up to $5,000 per year to students who live in Missouri or the Illinois counties that comprise the St. Louis metropolitan area and have or have had an incarcerated parent or primary caregiver.

ScholarCHIPS: Provides $2,500 college scholarships or $500 book awards to Washington, D.C.-area graduating high school seniors with an incarcerated parent or immediate family member in prison who has served as the applicant’s primary caregiver.

Give Back: Provides a scholarship covering college tuition, fees, and room and board for four years to Pell Grant-eligible ninth-grade applicants in California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington who have faced significant financial hardship and other adversities, including the incarceration of a parent.

Making higher education accessible to incarcerated individuals can have a positive effect on their families, Walsh says.

“Even though someone is in prison, they’re still connected to their families and they’re still part of their community,” Walsh says. “When we educate them in prison, there can be a generational impact back home.”

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

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Financial Aid Options for Incarcerated Individuals originally appeared on

Update 03/01/21: This article has been updated to include new information.

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