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From “Undeserving Criminals” to “Second Chance Students”: Pell Grant Eligibility and Incarcerated Students

April 01, 2022

An open book lays with a pair of glasses on it. Above the book and glasses, the article's full title is on a black background.
An open book lays with a pair of glasses on it. Above the book and glasses, the article’s full title is on a black background.
Gerard Robinson

Gerard Robinson is Vice President for Education at the Advanced Studies in Culture Foundation in Charlottesville, VA, and a Lecturer at the University of Virginia School of Law. Robinson writes about K-20 education, public policy, prison reform, economic mobility, and race in U.S. institutions. Examples of his work include the coedited book “Education for Liberation: The Politics of Promise and Reform Inside and Beyond America’s Prisons” (2019), and a report titled “A Story to Tell: The Importance of Education During Incarceration as Told by 22 Men and Women Who Know Firsthand” (2021). Robinson earned an Ed.M. from Harvard University, a B.A. from Howard University, and an A.A. from El Camino Community College.

From “Undeserving Criminals” to “Second Chance Students”: Pell Grant Eligibility and Incarcerated Students


Between 1994 and 2021, the battle in Washington to strip and then reinstate Federal Pell Grant Program eligibility for students inside U.S. prisons was driven by narrative shifts and various political stakeholders, including the White House, Congress, and criminal justice reform advocates.

A fundamental question about the role of prison lies at the core of this debate: is it designed for punishment or rehabilitation? Policymakers who prioritize punishment support the “undeserving criminal” narrative: once someone is convicted of a crime and sent to prison, that individual should not receive support for college education through a Pell grant. In contrast, policymakers who believe in rehabilitation support the “second chance student” narrative: an incarcerated person should remain eligible for a Pell grant.

The undeserving criminal narrative dominated political discourse in the 1990s, fueled by a reported rise in crime and the “tough on crime” stance of numerous White House administrations and various advocacy organizations. Congress responded with the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which included a provision banning people in state and federal prisons from receiving Pell grants.[1]

The second chance student narrative became popular during the 2010s as a result of numerous factors. These included a decline in crime and incarceration rates; books such as The New Jim Crow; and support for a “rehabilitation through education” agenda from the Obama White House, advocacy organizations, and current and formerly incarcerated students.[2] This narrative shift led to the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which lifted the ban on Pell grants for students in state and federal prisons.[3]

This blog post explores that history, explaining how and why the narrative around incarcerated adults and Pell grants shifted from undeserving criminals to second chance students.

The “Undeserving Criminal” Narrative: Restricting Access to Pell Grants

Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) and subsequent amendments to it authorized the creation of what we know today as the federal Pell Grant Program,[4] which is the nation’s largest federal grant program for low-income undergraduates enrolled in Title IV colleges and universities.[5] For the first thirty years of the program, incarcerated and free-world students were both eligible to receive a Pell grant.

The Basic Educational Opportunity Grant (BEOG) was created by amendments to the HEA in 1972,[6] and was later renamed in 1980 to honor the work of Senator Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) in higher education.[7] The Pell grant made two- and four-year colleges drastically more accessible to low-income students nationwide. During the first grant year, 1973-1974, 176,000 students received $47.6 million from the program,[8] and in 1993-1994, 3.7 million students received $5.7 billion.[9] In between those grant years, the number of Pell grant recipients in prison grew from 11,000 students in 1979-1980[10] to 23,000 students in 1993-1994,[11] offering critical support to high school graduates who wanted to continue their education.[12]

However, the increased enrollment of Pell grant students in prison occurred alongside a troubling trend: between 1973 and 1994, the number of people in prison rose exponentially from 204,211 to 1,053,738.[13]

One key cause of this growth was policymakers’ implementation of a “tough on crime” agenda which emphasized punishment, not rehabilitation. This agenda laid the ideological framework for an undeserving criminal narrative that was driven by multiple presidents.

President Richard Nixon initiated decades of a “tough on crime” policy when he declared drug abuse “public enemy number one” in 1971.[14] This statement ignited the War on Drugs, which prioritized prison sentences for convicted drug users and distributors rather than rehabilitation.[15] In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s support of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which abolished federal parole,[16] and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created mandatory minimum sentences for the sale or possession of certain drugs (i.e., crack), drove the rising incarceration rate and new prison construction.[17] President George H. W. Bush’s creation of a “Weed and Seed” program, which removed “bad” people from local communities and sowed “good” programs into them, resulted in more arrests and incarceration.[18]

Although this tough on crime agenda had a disproportionate impact on Black, Latinx, and poor White individuals in urban communities, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, one of the most expansive crime laws in modern history.[19]

Among its many provisions, the law codified the undeserving criminal narrative by abolishing the Pell Grant Program for all prison students, including nonviolent offenders. Funding college education for incarcerated individuals when many citizens had to borrow loans was not popular with Congress. Comments by Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN) during a House debate in 1994 exemplified the bi-partisan consensus: “Law-abiding students have every right to be outraged when a Pell grant for a policeman’s child is cut but a criminal that the officer sends to prison can still get a big check.”[20]

The Pell ban in the 1994 crime bill did not go unchallenged, and an incarcerated man in a New York state prison filed a pro se challenge in Nicholas v. Riley.[21] However, in a short, four-page opinion the District Court granted the government’s motion to dismiss, finding that the plaintiff failed to state a claim under the Equal Protection or Due Process clauses.[22]

Because incarceration is not a suspect class under the Equal Protection Clause, the court analyzed the claim under a rational basis standard.[23] In this case, the court found the Pell ban was rationally related to legitimate governmental purposes:

[w]hether because of budgetary constraints … the desire to increase the funding available to law-abiding students … the conclusion that other sources of educational funding available exclusively to prisoners are sufficient … the desire to eliminate fraud in the administration of Pell Grant monies to prisoners … the notion that prisoners and nonprisoners are not similarly situated with regard to the contemporaneous need for higher education … or a desire to shift such costs to the states … .[24]

As to the Due Process claim, the court framed the right at issue as access to Pell Grants, not as access to education, and thus found that the plaintiff did not have a procedural due process claim because the plaintiff did not have a constitutionally protected property interest in Pell Grants after the Amendment.[25]

Similarly, the court denied the substantive claim because the right to Pell Grants was not a fundamental right, and therefore, only required a “reasonable fit” between the government’s purpose and the means.[26] The D.C. Circuit affirmed the decision, and after that no incarcerated student received a Pell grant for the next twenty years.

The Second Chance Student Narrative: Expanding Access to Pell Grants

Barack Obama’s election marked a shift in the dominant political narrative. He recognized the disproportionate impact of the school-to-prison pipeline on Black and Brown youth, observed hundreds of adults in the Illinois prison system who did not have a high school diploma, and noted the system’s inter-generational effect on families in Chicago. In Dreams from My Father, he wrote, “Prison records had been passed down from father to son for more than a generation.”[27]

As an Illinois state senator, Obama supported criminal justice reform efforts, including a state-sponsored study of racial profiling by police.[28] He also sponsored education and social welfare legislation, in part, to champion programs to improve the lives of vulnerable groups.[29]

In Washington, President Obama championed the effort to re-extend Pell grant eligibility to incarcerated adults. On July 16, 2015, Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.[30] In his comments, Obama emphasized the need for comprehensive criminal justice reform and second chances.[31]

A few weeks after his prison visit, Obama unveiled the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative (SCPESI), which “examine[d] how waiving the restriction on providing Pell Grants to individuals incarcerated in Federal or State penal institutions influences participation in education opportunities as well as academic and life outcomes.”[32] More than 200 educational institutions applied for the program, and in June 2016 Secretary John King announced sixty-seven institutional grant recipients that would partner with more than 100 correctional facilities to provide in-person, online, or hybrid instruction to incarcerated students.[33] These institutions then gained access to $30 million to fund Pell grants for 12,000 incarcerated students in more than 100 prisons.[34]

After the 2016 election, observers were concerned about SCPESI’s future. Yet President Donald Trump, who ran as a tough-on-crime candidate, supported educational opportunities for incarcerated adults. Members of Trump’s political base—business executives, law enforcement, and conservative criminal justice reform organizations—supported such efforts and noted that educational access made prisons safer, increased public safety, and reduced correctional costs.[35] Additionally, twelve Republican governors urged Congress to expand the Pell program to address workforce demands.[36]

President Trump’s administration responded with two policy decisions. First, in April 2020 Education Secretary Betsy DeVos approved a new cohort of SCPESI partners, continuing the Obama administration’s initiative.[37] As of April 2021, 130 colleges from forty-two states and the District of Columbia participated in SCPESI.[38] Moreover, between 2016 and 2020, 22,117 unique –or “unduplicated”– students enrolled in the program.[39] From this group, more than 7,000 students have earned a certificate, diploma, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree.[40]

Second, in December 2020 President Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, a $1.4 trillion spending package that repealed the Pell grant ban for incarcerated individuals.[41] As a result of this legislative change, the Department of Education convened the Pell Grants for Prison Education Programs Subcommittee between October and December 2021, which included formerly incarcerated individuals, to negotiate new regulations to fully reinstate Pell program eligibility for students by 2023.[42]


Narrative shifts in American law and policy do not happen accidentally. They occur when powerful people in the White House, Congress, and advocacy organizations articulate a social change agenda in ways that capture the public imagination and galvanize support for reform. The shift in focus from “undeserving criminal” to “second chance student” in political discourse is one example of this process.

Yet, another reversal is possible, and reporting on record numbers of violent crime during the past year could rekindle the undeserving criminal narrative.[43] This narrative led to the Pell grant ban in the early 1990s; however, advocacy inside and outside the government has shifted, not just the narrative, but the wider understanding of the criminal justice system and incarcerated individuals.

President Joe Biden exemplifies this shift. As a U.S. Senator, he cosponsored the 1994 crime bill that originally removed incarcerated students’ Pell grant eligibility.[44] As President, he has supported educational access for incarcerated students, declaring in “A Proclamation on Second Chance Month, 2022”: “My Administration recognizes that making the criminal and juvenile justice systems more equitable, just, and effective requires a holistic approach… . It requires quality job training and educational opportunities during incarceration.”[45]


[1] Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Pub. L. No. 103-322, 108 Stat. 1796.

[2] See Ames Grawert, Crime Trends: 1990-2016, Brennan Center (Apr. 18, 2017) (noting the decline in the national crime rate between 1991 and 2016), []; Adam Gelb & Phillip Stevenson, U.S. Adult Incarceration Rate Declines 13% in 8 Years, Pew Trust (Jan. 12, 2017), []; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 10th Anniversary ed., 2020); Sarah Wheaton, I Could Have Wound Up in Prison, Obama Tells Inmates, Politico (July 16, 2015), []; and Erica L. Green, A ‘Second Chance’ After 27 Years in Prison: How Criminal Justice Helped an Ex-Inmate Graduate, New York Times (July 8, 2019), [].

[3] Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, Pub. L. No. 116-260, 134 Stat. 1182.

[4] Higher Education Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 89-329, 79 Stat. 1219 (codified as amended at 20 U.S.C. 1071 et seq.).

[5] U.S. Dep’t of Educ., Fast Facts: Financial Aid, Nat’l Ctr for Educ. Stat. (2021), [].

[6] Education Amendments of 1972, Pub. L. No. 92-318, §§ 401, 411, 86 Stat. 235, 247-51 (1972) (current version at 20 U.S.C. 1071 et seq.). See also John Lee, The Early Years of the Pell Grant, in Reflections on Pell: Championing Social Justice Through 40 Years of Educational Opportunity 40-43 (Pell Institute, June 2013) (detailing the early history of the BEOG and federal higher education priorities), [].

[7] Lee, supra note 6, at 40. Senator Pell’s daughter wrote about why Pell grants for incarcerated adults supports his vision for the 40th anniversary of the Pell Grant Program. Dallas Pell, Educational Opportunities for All, in Reflections on Pell: Championing Social Justice Through 40 Years of Educational Opportunity 86-87 (Pell Institute, June 2013) (detailing the early history of the BEOG and federal higher education priorities), [].

[8] U.S. Dep’t of Educ. Off. of Postsecondary Educ., 1993-94 Federal Pell Grant Program End-of-Year Report 15.

[9] Id. at 18.

[10] Comptroller Gen. of the U.S., GAO/HRD-82-43, Prisoners Receiving Social Security and Other Federal Retirement, Disability, and Education Benefits 15 (1982).

[11] Linda G. Morra, U.S. Gen. Acct. Off., GAO/HEHS-94-224R, Pell Grants for Prison Inmates 8 (Aug. 5, 1994).

[12] People in prison typically have a lower level of education than the general population. According to a U.S. Department of Education report, thirty percent did not complete high school (compared to fourteen percent of the general population). Bobby D. Rampey, Shelley Keiper, Leyla Mohadjer, Tom Krenzke, Jianzhu Li, Nina Thornton, Jacquie Hogan, Holly Xie, & Stephen Provasnik, Highlights from the U.S. PIAAC Survey of Incarcerated Adults: Their Skills, Work Experience, Education, and Training 5 (U.S. Dep’t of Educ. Nat’l Ctr for Educ. Stat., 2016). Additionally, twenty-five percent came from a household where neither parent attained a high school diploma. Id. at 25.

[13] Patrick A. Langan, John V. Fundis, Lawrence A. Greenfeld, & Victoria W. Schneider, Historical Statistics on Prisoners in State and Federal Institutions, Yearend 1925-86 12 (U.S. Dep’t of Just. Bureau of Just. Stat., 1988); Allen J. Beck & Darrell K. Gilliard, Prisoners in 1994 1 (U.S. Dep’t of Just. Bureau of Just. Stat., 1995).

[14] Public Enemy Number One: A Pragmatic Approach to America’s Drug Problem, Richard Nixon Found. (June 29, 2016), []. Although the prison population skyrocketed during the 1970s and 1980s, President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a “War on Crime” during the mid-1960s expanded the reach of the federal government into state and local criminal justice practices, which future presidents built upon. See generally Lyndon B. Johnson, Special Message to the Congress on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, The American Presidency Project, [] (last visited March 10, 2022).

[15] See, e.g., Vanita Gupta, The 40-Year War on Drugs: It’s Not Fair, and It’s Not Working., Am. C.L. Union (June 1, 2011), [].

[16] The Sentencing Reform Act of was part of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, Pub. L. 98-473, 98 Stat. 1987.

[17] Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, Pub. L. 99-570, 100 Stat. 3207.

[18] See Weed and Seed, The U.S. Att’y’s Off. N. Dist. of California (Oct. 5, 2018), []; National Weed and Seed Program, U.S. Dep’t of Just. Exec. Off. for Weed and Seed, [] (last visited March 10, 2022).

[19] Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Pub. L. No. 103-322, 108 Stat. 1796. The Brennan Center for Justice called the law the “most far-reaching crime bill Congress ever passed,” Lauren-Brooke Eisen, The 1994 Crime Bill and Beyond: How Federal Funding Shapes the Criminal Justice System, Brennan Ctr. for Just. (Sept. 9, 2019), []; and the Center for American Progress described it as “the most sweeping crime bill in U.S. history.” Ranya Shannon, 3 Ways the 1994 Crime Bill Continues to Hurt Communities of Color, Ctr. for Am. Progress (May 10, 2019), []. The law increased punishment in several ways. First, a three strikes provision mandated life sentences for certain felonies committed by someone with two prior convictions. Second, the law funneled $1 billion towards hiring 100,000 new police officers in 1995 alone, and billions more over the next twenty plus years. Nathan James, Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Program 2 (Congressional Rsch. Serv., 2019), []. Third, though all fifty states already had at least one mandatory minimum law, the crime bill gave “the federal stamp of approval for states to pass even more ‘tough-on-crime’ laws.” Udi Ofer, How the 1994 Crime Bill Fed the Mass Incarceration Crisis, Am. C.L. Union (June 4, 2019), []

[20] Nick Anderson, Advocates Push to Renew Pell Grants for Prisoners, Citing Benefits of Higher Education, Wash. Post (Dec. 3, 2013), [].

[21] 874 F. Supp. 10 (D.D.C. 1995), aff’d, Nicholas v. Reno, No. 95-5047, WL 686227 (D.C. Cir. Oct. 10, 1995).

[22] Id. at 11.

[23] Id. at 12-13.

[24] Id. at 13. Citations omitted.

[25] Id. at 14.

[26] Id.

[27] Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance 252 (2d ed. 2004).

[28] See Daniel C. Vock, Obama’s Record in the Illinois Senate, Pew Charitable Tr. (Aug. 25, 2008), [].

[29] See generally Randolph Burnside and Kami Whitehurst, From the Statehouse to the White House? Barack Obama’s Bid to Become the Next President, 38 J. of Black St. 75 (2007); and Michael Nelson, Barack Obama: Life Before the Presidency, Univ. of Virginia Miller Ctr, []. To view a list of bills sponsored by then-State Senator Obama during the 93rd General Assembly, see also Illinois General Assembly, [].

[30] Michael A. Memoli, Obama to Become First Sitting President to Visit a Prison, Los Angeles Times (July 10, 2015), [].

[31] Wheaton, supra note 2.

[32] Notice Inviting Postsecondary Educational Institutions To Participate in Experiments Under the Experimental Sites Initiative; Federal Student Financial Assistance Programs Under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as Amended, 80 Fed. Reg. 45,964 (Aug. 3, 2015). See also U.S. Department of Education Announces It Will Expand the Second Chance Pell Experiment for the 2022-2023 Award Year, U.S. Dep’t of Educ. Press Office (July 30, 2021), [].

[33] Erwin Hurst, Sr., 12,000 Incarcerated Students to Enroll in Postsecondary Educational and Training Programs Through Education Department’s New Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, Second Chance Educational Alliance (June 25, 2016), []; Kimberly Hefling, Pell Grants for Prisoners Moves Forward, Roughly 12,000 Inmates Expected to Participate, Politico (June 24, 2016), []; Ellen Wexler, Prisoners to Get ‘Second Chance Pell’, Inside Higher Ed (June 24, 2016), [].

[34] Hefling, supra note 33.

[35] See, e.g., Andrew Kreighbaum, Prison Pell Grants Get Support from Big Business, Prosecutors, Bloomberg Gov’t (Mar. 2, 2020), []; and MythBusters: Pell Grant Eligibility for Incarcerated Students, Am. Conservative Union Found., R St., Freedom Works, & Prison Fellowship (2020) (pushing back against several common arguments against Pell grant eligibility for incarcerated students, such as “Myth: Pell grants for incarcerated students comes at the expense of law abiding, low-income students.”), [].

[36] Joelle Fredman, Republican Governors Call to Expand Pell Grants to Prisoners, Short-Term Programs, Nat’l Ass’n of Student Fin. Aid Adm’rs (October 7, 2019), [].

[37] Secretary DeVos Expands Second Chance Pell Experiment, More than Doubling Opportunities for Incarcerated Students to Gain Job Skills and Earn Postsecondary Credentials, U.S. Dep’t of Educ. Bulletin (Apr. 24, 2020), [].

[38] Kelsie Chesnut & Allan Wachendorfer, Second Chance Pell: Four Years of Expanding Access to Education in Prison, Vera Instit. of Justice, 1 (April 2021), []. The Vera Institute of Justice provides technical support to colleges and prisons participating in SCPESI.

[39] Id. at 2.

[40] Id.

[41] See FY 2021 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, Nat’l Cong. of State Legislatures (Jan. 4, 2021), []; and Andrea Cantora, Congress Lifts Long-Standing Ban on Pell Grants to People in Prison, PBS News Hour: The Conversation (Dec. 29, 2020), [].

[42] Negotiated Rule Making for Higher Education 2021-2022, U.S. Dep’t of Educ., []; 2021 Negotiated Rulemaking Prison Education Programs Subcommittee (non-voting), U.S. Dep’t of Educ., [].

[43] See, e.g., Homicides Continued to Increase in Major U.S. Cities in 2021, but at Slower Pace, Council on Crim. Just. (Jan. 26, 2022), []; Stephanie Pagones, US Murder Rate Highest It’s Been in 25 Years as Big Cities Shatter Records, Fox News (Jan. 18, 2022), []; and Nicole Sganga, Homicides in Major American Cities Increased in 2021, New Study Finds, CBS News (Jan. 26, 2022), [].

[44] Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, S. 1607, 103rd Cong. (1993).

[45] A Proclamation on Second Chance Month, 2022, The White House (Mar. 31, 2022), []. The Senate unanimously passed a resolution declaring the first Second Chance Month in April 2017. U.S. Senate Declares April Second Chance Month, Prison Fellowship (Apr. 2017), ( [].