Incarcerated students now eligible for federal Pell Grants through a bachelor’s degree but no program at HDSP yet

All incarcerated students in California and throughout the country are now eligible for federal Pell Grants, a change that will help make higher education more accessible and affordable.

Pell Grants, available for incarcerated students starting July 1, 2023, open the opportunity for students in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to further their learning and meet their rehabilitative goals. Research shows that higher education reduces recidivism and provides a pathway for good paying jobs upon release.

“We know that college changes lives and can be transformative,” said Shannon Swain, Superintendent of Correctional Education for CDCR. “CDCR is committed to grade school-to-grad school opportunities for all incarcerated individuals, and I am thrilled that the return of Pell Grants helps makes that possible.”

The FAFSA Simplification Act, signed into law in December 2020, restored Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated individuals for the first time since 1994. The new law requires confined or incarcerated individuals to enroll in a prison education program that has been approved by the state Department of Corrections and the federal Department of Education in order to access a Federal Pell Grant. Eight CDCR institutions have bachelor’s degree programs that are or will be using Pell Grants, and a ninth program is expected to start in 2024.

The programs are

  • Sacramento State University at Folsom State Prison and Mule Creek State Prison.
  • California State University, Los Angeles at California State Prison, Los Angeles County and California Institution for Women.
  • Fresno State University at Valley State Prison and California Correctional Women’s Facility.
  • San Diego State University at Centinela State Prison.
  • University of California Irvine at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility.
  • Cal Poly Humboldt at Pelican Bay State Prison (beginning spring 2024).

CDCR anticipates this list will grow as colleges and universities obtain the required approvals.

CDCR is a national leader in higher education with approximately 13,000 college students every semester working toward two-year or four-year degrees. Institutions offer face-to-face and correspondence college courses.

In California, financial aid for incarcerated community college students has been available through the California College Promise Grant, which covers tuition fees for low-income community college students. However, until now students have not had full access to financial aid that would allow them to continue their education beyond community college.

About Pell Grants
Federal Pell Grants are education grants that can be used by eligible students (incarcerated or not) enrolled in an accredited college or university. They are available for low-income students who have not yet earned a bachelor’s or professional degree.

For incarcerated students, grant money can be used to help cover tuition, fees, books, and supplies. Funds go directly to the academic institution; no money goes to the student or CDCR. The money does not need to be repaid.

Colleges and universities offering the bachelor’s degree in CDCR will work with their students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is required in order to access Pell Grants.

The amount of grant money provided to a student depends on the program.

CDCR’s ‘grade school to grad school’ commitment
CDCR partners with California’s public higher education system to offer associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees through the California community colleges, the California State University, and the University of California. About 13.5 percent of the entire incarcerated population are enrolled in college courses.

Education as a powerful rehabilitative tool
Providing education in prison is proven to reduce recidivism rates and is associated with higher employment rates and improved public safety. A study from the RAND Corporation, funded by the Department of Justice, found that incarcerated individuals who participated in correctional education were 48 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than incarcerated individuals who did not participate in any correctional education programs. RAND also estimated that for every dollar invested in correctional education programs, four to five dollars are saved on three-year re-incarceration costs.