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U.S. Department of Education Lifting Restrictions Preventing Incarcerated People Using Type of Federal Aid to Pay for College

Tuesday, September 26th, 2023 -- 9:00 AM

(By Sarah Lehr, Wisconsin Public Radio) After more than two decades, the U.S. Department of Education is lifting restrictions that prevented incarcerated people from using a type of federal aid to pay for college. 

According to Sarah Lehr with Wisconsin Public Radio, the change could bring additional opportunities to Wisconsinites behind bars, as colleges take steps to expand their programming inside the state's prisons.

More than 6 million low-income students across the country used Pell grants to help pay for higher education in the 2021-22 school year. But a provision in a 1994 U.S. crime bill has banned incarcerated students from using those federal grants.

"It was really part of our nation's larger kind of tough on crime stance at the time," said Margaret diZerega with the Vera Institute of Justice, a think tank that researches mass incarceration.

"It's terrific to see this law change given what we know about the benefits of college in prison, in terms of reducing the likelihood of someone returning to prison (and) reducing violence in prisons, which makes it safer for the people who live there, and the people who work there."

Following a vote from Congress in 2020, those restrictions were lifted effective July 1. The change is long overdue, said Roy Rogers, who advocates for criminal justice reform in Wisconsin though a group called The Community.

"For many, many years, this door of opportunity has been closed to many men and women," Rogers said. "Since this opportunity is reestablished, it's going to create hope. It's going to create a mindset that says, 'You know what, since I do have this opportunity, I don't want to do anything that's going to jeopardize it.' So it will affect the behavior of the men and women on the inside."

Since 2016, some people in Wisconsin prisons have been able to get federal aid for college as part of a pilot called the Second Chance Pell experiment. Currently, those classes are offered online as part of partnerships with three institutions, Madison College, Moraine Park Technical College and Milwaukee Area Technical College.

Outside of Second Chance Pell, other programs, such as Odyssey Behind Bars through the University of Wisconsin, are made possible by a mix of state funding and private donations, said Ben Jones, who oversees educational programs for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Last semester, 350 of the 464 students taking classes through the Wisconsin DOC were part of Second Chance Pell, Jones said. Now that the 1994 restrictions have been lifted, diZerega anticipates more incarcerated students will be able to pursue higher education in Wisconsin and across the country.

Feel free to contact us with questions and/or comments.