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  • Tia Ryans

Pell Grant Eligibility Will Change Lives for Incarcerated Students and Their Communities

Updated: Feb 3

The Stimulus Bill passed on December 21, 2020 includes a life-changing opportunity for many incarcerated students who are once again eligible for federal Pell grants to fund college tuition. Restoring eligibility for Pell grant aid is a big step in transforming the criminal justice system from a punitive focus to one of support, learning, and opportunity. I applaud the legislators of both houses that fought for and passed the bill. It is one small but critical step forward in our country’s march toward social justice.


As someone who was able to take advantage of the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program through the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education Program (NJ-STEP), I know first hand how powerful education can be. In July 2015, when President Obama expanded access to financial aid for incarcerated students, I was able to begin the life changing journey of an academic career while incarcerated. After my release, I continued on to receive a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Rutgers University-Newark as a first generation college graduate.


Access to education is the driving force behind my current passion in founding Forcing Out Recidivism Through Education (FORTE House). Located in Newark, NJ, FORTE House provides transitional housing for formerly incarcerated students pursuing post secondary education while holistically addressing the educational, social, recreational, and logistical needs of student residents. Each day I see our residents grow as they confidently navigate reentry, knowing that not ALL cards are stacked against them.


Studies over time have unanimously proven that college education in prisons translates into the reduction of recidivism, increased safety inside correctional institutions and communities hardest hit by mass incarceration, and minimized economic strains:


  • The Urban Institute’s 2009 report states higher education programs improve prison environments, translating into fewer disciplinary infractions and a safer workplace for corrections officers.

  • A 2016 RAND meta-analysis found that those who participate in any kind of educational program behind bars are up to 43 percent less likely to return to prison.


  • Research shown by Brazzell in 2009 shows that an investment in education for incarcerated people saves money: For every $962 spent on academic education in prisons, taxpayer’s costs for criminal justice are reduced by $5,306.


Pell grants incarcerated students does not impact the general public’s ability to receive or access Pell funding. The Prison Policy Initiative highlighted that at its highest peak, less than 1/10 of one percent (1%) of total Pell grant awards went to those receiving college education in prisons.



Even further, as my personal story demonstrates, many studies corroborate, post secondary prison education programs offer a chance to break the generational cycle of educational inequity. When children are inspired by their parents to take education more seriously, they too begin to see viable alternatives to dropping out of school and entering a life of crime, thus breaking a harrowing cycle of intergenerational incarceration.


This is only a beginning. I really look forward to seeing more incarcerated individuals become positive members of the community.


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