Federal Pell Grants for Prisoners
CRS Report for Congress
Federal Pell Grants for Prisoners
Analyst in Social Legislation
Domestic Social Policy Division
In 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act amended the Higher
Education Act (HEA) to exclude individuals who were incarcerated in a state or federal
penal institution from receiving federal Pell Grants. Since the initial enactment,
questions have continued to surface about the implementation of the prohibition. This
issue may be considered during the HEA reauthorization process. This report includes
a brief discussion of the Pell Grant program, and the prior participation of prisoners, as
well as a review of the current legislative activity. The report will be updated as
The federal Pell Grant program is the largest single source of grant aid for
undergraduate postsecondary education funded by the federal government. The program
was first authorized in the Education Amendments of 1972 (P.L. 92-318). The Pell Grant
is awarded to undergraduate students on a need basis and is intended to serve as the
foundation of all federal student aid awarded. The size of the award is primarily based
upon the individual student’s and where applicable, their family’s ability to contribute to
the costs of their education.1 Students who are incarcerated in a state or federal penal
institution are not eligible to receive a Pell Grant or a federal student loan.2
1 For additional information regarding the federal Pell Grant program and student eligibility, see
CRS Report RL31668, Federal Pell Grant Program of the Higher Education Act: Background
and Reauthorization, by James B. Stedman. (Hereafter cited as CRS Report RL31668.)
2 Individuals who are incarcerated in a state or federal penal institution are eligible to receive
assistance from the Federal Work-Study (FWS) and Federal Supplemental Educational
Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) programs. For information regarding eligibility and how these
programs work, see CRS Report RL31618, Campus-Based Student Financial Aid Programs
Under the Higher Education Act, by David Smole.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Prior to 1992, individuals who were incarcerated and pursuing a postsecondary
education were eligible to receive a Pell Grant. In the 1992 amendments to the Higher
Education Act (HEA) (P.L. 102-325), Congress prohibited persons who were sentenced
to life in prison without the possibility of parole and those who were sentenced to death
from receiving a Pell Grant. Persons who were incarcerated and not serving life sentences
without the possibility of parole or sentenced to death remained eligible for Pell Grants.
However, the only permissible expenses were tuition, fees, books and supplies; room and
board could not be covered. Several proponents of the new provisions maintained that
prisoners who were sentenced to death or life without the possibility of parole would
never reenter society, thus there was no need to educate them. In addition, the
opposition’s argument that education reduced recidivism was not applicable to individuals
with life sentences or those who had received the death penalty.
In 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (P.L. 103-322)
amended the HEA and completely eliminated Pell Grant eligibility for persons
incarcerated in a state or federal penal institution.3 During the passage of the 1994
Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act many argued that providing Pell Grants
to prisoners was displacing more “deserving” students from the program. But in fact, in
any given award year funds are available to ensure that all eligible students attending
eligible institutions receive a Pell Grant.4 Therefore, the number of prisoners receiving
a grant does not affect the number of grants available to non-incarcerated students.
Nevertheless, an overall increase in Pell Grant recipients does increase the total costs of
the program, and would increase the cost of raising the size of the maximum grant.5
Prior to the enactment of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act,
prisoner participation in the Pell Grant program was very minimal. It is estimated that in
the 1993-1994 program award year, approximately 23,000 prisoners — out of 4 million6
total Pell Grant recipients — participated in the Pell Grant program. Furthermore, the
General Accounting Office (GAO) estimated that during this same program year, inmates
received $35 million of the $6 billion awarded in grants. This represented less than 1%.
Most inmates who participated in the Pell Grant program were enrolled in programs of
at least two years, but less than four years in duration, conducted by public, postsecondary
institutions.7 For example, a local community college might conduct a program in a
3 Incarcerated students who are not incarcerated in a state or federal penal institution are eligible
for a federal Pell Grant, FWS and FSEOG.
4 For additional information regarding Pell eligibility, see CRS Report RL31668.
5 For additional discussion on increasing the maximum Pell Grant, see CRS Report RL31668.
6 General Accounting Office (GAO), Pell Grants for Prison Inmates, HEHS-94-224R (letter of
Aug. 5, 1994).
Prior Legislative Action
Since the initial enactment of the prohibition of Pell Grants for prisoners, policy
makers have continued to debate some issues. For example, opponents contend that the
elimination of Pell Grants has resulted in an increase in recidivism because inmates no
longer have the means to pay for their education. The proponents of the prohibition
maintain that education is a luxury, and prisoners should not be eligible to receive a Pell
Grant, especially considering funds for the program are limited. Since the initial passage
of the prohibition, various members have introduced legislation to amend and/or eliminate
this provision. This section presents a brief discussion of prior legislative activity.
During the 108th Congress, Representative Ric Keller introduced the No Financial
Aid for Sex Offenders Act (H.R. 3385),8 which prohibited sex offenders confined to civil
commitment facilities from receiving Pell Grants or federal student loans.9 At present,
the HEA does not define either imprisonment or penal institution. As a result of the
absence of a definition it is not clear how to apply the current provisions of the HEA to
civil commitment facilities. These facilities present an unusual set of circumstances with
regard to the inmates who enroll in a postsecondary institution and apply for a Pell
Grant.10 These facilities are considered mental health facilities by the states and courts,
and are usually managed by the state’s health or social service agency as opposed to a
corrections department. Because the person being treated in the facility has been
sentenced to reside in the facility and cannot leave until he is permitted to do so, many
argue that civil commitment centers function as prisons.
8 The bill was introduced in the House on Oct. 29, 2003 and referred to the Subcommittee on 21st
Century Competitiveness in Nov. 2003. There has been no further action since.
9 According to Representative Keller, “This past year, 54 violent sexual predators in Florida
obtained over $200,000 in Pell Grants at taxpayers expense. They got a free ride by exploiting
a loophole, that is, they were involuntarily confined in something called a civil commitment
center as opposed to being called a prison.” Representative Ric Keller, “No Financial Aid For
Sex Offenders Act” (H.R. 3385), remarks in the Congressional Record, Daily edition, Oct. 29,
10 For additional information regarding civil commitment, see CRS Report RL30890, Sex
Offender Registration: Issues and Legislation, by Alison M. Siskin and David Teasley.