The Education Department is planning to tweak—but not end—a pilot program for prison higher education programs as it gears up to reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students broadly.
The department’s announcement means that education for incarcerated students won’t be disrupted when new regulations take effect this summer, officially giving those students access to Pell Grants. Colleges and universities participating in the pilot known as Second-Chance Pell have until May 18 to apply for a waiver that will let them continue operating programs in prison for three years.
“It’s a way to make sure students get to stay enrolled, but the college that they’re enrolled in is going to meet the same standards that other new colleges as well,” said Ruth Delaney, an associate director for the Unlocking Potential Initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice, which is focused on college programs in prison.
What would happen to Second-Chance Pell sites has been a key issue for institutions and advocates since the department last fall released the new regulations for prison education programs.
Bradley Custer, a senior policy analyst in higher education for the Center for American Progress, said Second-Chance Pell participants can breathe a little easier now following the department’s announcement about the revised experiment.
“They do have time to work through these steps,” he said.
The institutions granted a waiver will have to meet certain benchmarks in order to comply with the new requirements for prison education programs, which take effect in July. Those requirements include receiving approval from a corrections agency and an accreditor and completing an application.
That’s a different timeline from institutions starting from scratch, said Delaney with the Vera Institute.
“A lot of these colleges have spent a lot of time developing their programs,” she said. “I do think it’s going to get the Second-Chance Pell schools in line with all of the important quality control measures that are in the regulations, but it’s going to help them get there with a little bit more support.”
Under the new regulations, students have to be enrolled in an approved prison education program in order to receive a Pell Grant.
Pilot Program to Transition
More than 200 institutions are participating in Second-Chance Pell, a federal pilot program that started in 2015 as a way to give some incarcerated students access to higher education. Congress changed federal law in 2020 to expand Pell Grant eligibility to qualifying individuals in prison.
“From the beginning, it’s always been a major concern both from colleges and the department that there would be an interruption in the educational programming of Second-Chance sites,” Custer said. “This revised experiment really is a transition plan.”
Only those institutions with programs already operating in correctional facilities or set to begin in the coming academic year are eligible to apply for the waiver. Second-Chance sites also won’t be able to grow while they are working toward full approval as prison education programs.
Under the new rules, a postsecondary institution that wants to start a prison education program has to first get approval from the agency operating the prison—either the state department of corrections or the federal Bureau of Prisons—and then the college’s accrediting agency, which is required to conduct a site visit. After two years, the corrections agency will review the program to decide whether it’s operating in students’ best interests.
The department said in the Federal Register notice that the revised experiment will give institutions time to seek approval of their prison education programs and provide the agency with an opportunity to learn more about the challenges associated with carrying out the new rules.
“There’s value in setting up this structure,” Custer said. “The department will be able to evaluate programs that they already know.”
He added that in collecting data and observing the implementation process, the department will be able to course correct if they notice an issue.
Participating programs have a year to get a signed agreement with a correctional facility, per the notice. By June 30, 2025, they need to have determined which programs will be offered, received approval from their accrediting agency and told the department when they plan to submit the application. The application must be submitted by Jan. 1, 2026.
Additionally, if participating institutions decide that they don’t want to move forward with a prison education program, then they’ll need to prepare a plan to wind down their operations.
“They can’t quit cold turkey on the students,” Custer said.
Custer said that the Second-Chance sites likely aren’t ready for the transition to a prison education program given that the programs are slightly different.
For example, prison education programs can’t enroll students in a program that leads to licensure or certification if someone couldn’t get a job in that field because of their conviction. That provision will apply to the Second-Chance sites, he said.
Similar to Custer, Delaney expects that the participating institutions might have to change their programs offered as part of the approval process.
“Second-Chance sites weren’t required to really consult with the department of corrections or students before deciding which program to offer,” she said.
‘A Lot to Know’
Custer said that the department still has several pieces to figure out before the new rules take effect July 1, such as the application for prison education programs and further guidance on how to carry out the regulations. Comments on the draft application closed last month.
“There’s still a lot to know, and I think colleges are looking for more guidance,” Custer said.
Wil Del Pilar, senior vice president at the Education Trust, which was one of several organizations that advocated for Pell Grant reinstatement, said he hopes to see more prison education programs start in the next three years beyond those participating in Second-Chance Pell.
For him, the key question heading into this summer when reinstatement becomes official is how states ensure there are protections for students and an equitable rollout of prison education programs.
“It will take a while for states to develop that infrastructure,” Pilar said. “There’s a lot of steps that need to happen.”
He’s worried that there will be an unequal rollout, depending on that state.
“It will be up to advocacy groups to monitor what’s happening in the states,” he said.