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Once-Incarcerated Students Are Getting a Chance to Earn a Degree

By Andrew Smalley  |  February 16, 2023

More than half of formerly incarcerated people hold only a high school diploma or GED, which do little to improve their chances of employment. Their access to postsecondary education has been substantially limited.

But that’s changing, thanks to bipartisan efforts at the state and federal levels.

State Actions

A criminal history can make it difficult for formerly incarcerated students to pursue a postsecondary degree or credential program. A recent survey found that 70% of four-year colleges and universities require applicants to disclose a criminal record as part of the application process. Since 2017, at least 16 states have considered legislation to modify or eliminate this requirement at public postsecondary institutions. Seven of the states, including California, Colorado, Louisiana, Maryland, Oregon, Virginia and Washington, have enacted legislation that addresses asking about criminal history during the college admissions process.

States have also considered legislation to expand access to state financial aid programs for incarcerated students. While state funding for financial aid and scholarship programs has increased nearly 40% since 2008, incarcerated students often have difficulty accessing any of these dollars. In fact, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah permanently ban any student with a criminal conviction from state financial aid programs. In 2019, New Jersey (SB 2055) allowed incarcerated students to be eligible for state-funded grants and scholarships. In 2021, Oregon (SB 234) established a stakeholder group to study ways to best serve adults in custody who are recently eligible to receive student grants.

State legislators have worked to collect, publish and share data around education programs for incarcerated students or create working groups to examine how systems can promote education opportunities for these students. In 2019, Tennessee (HB 1303) required the state Corrections Department annually to report on higher education opportunities available to incarcerated individuals. In 2021, Connecticut (HB 6402) established a task force to study the creation of a prison education office within the Corrections Department.

Federal Action

In 2020, Congress repealed the ban on financial aid eligibility for incarcerated students and students who have been convicted of drug-related offenses. This change will provide eligibility for Pell grants to more than 460,000 people who are currently incarcerated, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. This eligibility is set to begin by July 1.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Education announced that incarcerated individuals would qualify for the “fresh start” policy that will bring all defaulted student loans into good standing when the student loan payment pause expires.

Andrew Smalley is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Education Program.

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