Second Chance Pell vs. Pell Reinstatement: What's the Difference?

June 25, 2023
Meg Galindo
Image Courtesy of the Freedom Education Project at Puget Sound, 2016

The Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative (SCP) and the July 2023 Pell Grant reinstatement are two related, but distinct efforts to create more educational opportunities for incarcerated folks. The former is an exploratory program available to select colleges in the U.S., and the latter is a federal law that repeals the ban on full Pell eligibility for incarcerated people.

The Pell Grant program grew out of a series of initiatives dating from mid-twentieth-century reforms to increase access to education for certain groups of U.S. citizens. Unlike traditional college loans, Pell Grants do not need to be repaid and are only available to families with demonstrated financial need. Despite the fact that incarcerated learners accounted for less than 1% of Pell grantees in 1993, the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (the "Crime Bill") of 1994 prohibited incarcerated students from applying for federal aid, including Pell Grants (Morra, 1991). This gutted the already too few higher education in prison (HEP) programs across the country. By 1997, an estimated eight HEP programs remained in the United States (Robinson & English, 2017). The Landscape of Higher Education in Prison project tracks the recent growth of HEP programs, showing how the establishment of new HEP programs slowly increased after the 1997 nadir (Gaskill et al., 2023).

As the Landscape data shows, 2016 saw a dramatic increase in the creation of new HEP programs. This was likely encouraged by the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative (SCP).  Launched in 2015, SCP allowed for select colleges and universities to provide degree and certificate programs to students who - if not for their incarceration - would be eligible for a Pell Grant. Even though less than 100 colleges in the U.S. were able to participate in SCP in the 2017-2018 academic year, the initiative was “the largest single federal funding source for postsecondary education in prison” (Wilson et al,2019).  Since the establishment of SCP, the Vera Institute of Justice has been analyzing the data from participating HEP programs. The most recent June 2023 report demonstrates the value of education and the barriers still existing to attaining educational equity (Taber & Muralidharan, 2023).

Pell Grant reinstatement refers to the restoration of full Pell Grant eligibility for individuals who were previously disqualified in the 1994 Crime Bill, effective July 1, 2023. The December 2020 FAFSA Simplification Act legalizes the SCP experiment for all qualified HEP programs in the United States.

Almost 30 years have passed since incarcerated students were excluded fromPell. In the interim, higher education in prison programs have sought innovative ways to provide quality education to incarcerated people. We are thrilled that their vital work will be supported by the reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility. In the years to come, we hope that as quality postsecondary education opportunities increase, incarcerated populations decrease.

Image courtesy of Freedom Education Project Puget Sound | Eric Codrinton, 2017


‍Gaskill, S., Gould, M.R., Price, V., Castro, E.L., Lerman, A.E. (2023). The landscape of higher education in prison, 2020-2021. Alliance for Higher Education in Prison.

Morra, L. (1994, August 5). Memorandum to U.S. Senator Harris Wofford. U.S. General Accounting Office.

Robinson, G., & English, E. (2017). The Second Chance Pell pilot program: A historical overview. American Enterprise Institute.

Taber, N., & Muralidharan, A. (2023, June). Second Chance Pell: Six years of expanding higher education programs in prisons, 2016–2022. Vera Institute of Justice.  

Taylor, J. M. (2005). Alternative funding options for post-secondary correctional education (Part one). Journal of Correctional Education, 56( 1), 6–17.

Wilson, M., Alamuddin, R., & Cooper, D. M. (2019, May 30). Unbarring access: A landscape review of postsecondary education in prison and its pedagogical supports. Ithaka S+R.