Statement on Recent Supreme Court Decisions and the Reinstatement of Pell Grant Eligibility

July 13, 2023
Ved Price
Over the past few weeks, the field of higher education has changed dramatically. We have been fielding calls, concerns, and feedback from community members. I anticipated writing to you with joy this month about the return of full Pell eligibility for incarcerated students. Yet, this moment of celebration is tempered by the recent Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action and student loan debt relief. The Alliance for Higher Education in Prison supports free access to quality higher education to all incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students. Progress is not possible without acknowledging the reality that race and class factor into modern educational inequities.


Research confirms what many practitioners have seen: diverse student populations increase the quality of higher education.1 Affirmative action allowed institutions to use race as a small factor in admissions. In overturning this policy, the Supreme Court argued that the Constitution and Fourteenth Amendment are “colorblind” and that admissions must align to those standards. However, in practice, these documents have never been colorblind. Certainly, the landscape of education in the United States is not colorblind. Public schools with fewer resources for students disproportionately serve Black and Hispanic students; de facto segregation persists in K-12 learning.3 Fewer resources in these elementary and secondary educational spaces in turn create greater barriers and challenges for these students. 

Not everyone arrives to the point of college admissions with the same set of experiences. But all deserve the opportunity to pursue their full potential. Higher education in prison provides crucial opportunities for many incarcerated learners. Yet, even here, racial inequities persist. A recent Vera report illuminates how racial disparities are present in the Second Chance Pell program (“SCP”).4


We are committed to increasing the accessibility of quality higher education to all incarcerated populations. As universities grapple with the ramifications of this decision, we remain as a resource to support the development and protection of quality higher education.


In the pursuit of this education, many students have taken on student debt. After the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (the "Crime Bill") of 1994 banned incarcerated students of full Pell Grant eligibility, loans became one means for incarcerated people to access higher education.5 Educational debt contributes to larger financial barriers faced by incarcerated people that hinder not just reentry efforts, but also the ability to live securely.6


We believe that all people, regardless of whether they are currently or formerly incarcerated, should have access to quality and free higher education. We are disappointed by the ruling that would provide so many with much-needed financial relief.


As we grapple with these Supreme Court decisions, we also want to celebrate the return of full Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated learners. This much needed reform will support the important work that higher education in prison programs do and provide essential means of expansion. Pell Grant reinstatement comes after decades of work by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated advocates to grow higher education opportunities for incarcerated learners.7

Pell Grants are just one factor in the pursuit of a more equitable field of higher education in prison. Not all students will be eligible for Pell Grants. Even if every student was eligible, these grants do not cover all the costs associated with running a quality higher education in prison program.8 Moreover, the SCP program has provided a preview of some upcoming challenges that the field faces in the fair and equitable application of Pell Grants.9 

In the coming months and years, the higher education in prison community will celebrate the many victories supported by Pell and confront new challenges that arise. The Alliance is committed to not only providing concrete support and resources, but also serving as a forum for collaboration and collective problem-solving. 

- Ved Price, Executive Director