Unlocking Potential Initiative

Expanding high-quality postsecondary education in prison

Higher education in prison improves the quality of life behind bars and increases opportunities post-release. These benefits extend beyond those completing their education. Communities that invest in postsecondary education in prisons see taxpayer savings and improved public safety as a result of lower recidivism rates.

Broadening access to college in prison has the potential to transform families and communities and ultimately disrupt mass incarceration. Vera’s Unlocking Potential initiative promotes access to life-changing education by supporting the scale and quality of college programs and developing strategies that reduce racial inequities in college access and completion rates.

Removing policy barriers to college in prison

The 1994 Crime Bill banned people in prison from accessing federal need-based financial aid for postsecondary education. Estimates suggest there were 772 schools offering college programs to people in prison in 1994. By 1997, after the Crime Bill went into effect, only eight remained.

Understanding the Impact:

colleges offered credit-bearing postsecondary education in the 2019–2020 academic year
students enrolled in college through the Second Chance Pell pilot from 2016 to 2021
people in prison who will be eligible for Pell Grants when access is reinstated in 2023

Recognizing the urgent need for educational opportunities for the nation’s soaring prison population, Vera partnered with select states in 2012 to fund postsecondary education programs in prison and pilot strategies that improved student engagement and success post-release.

This work inspired the U.S. Department of Education to launch the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites initiative (Second Chance Pell) in 2015. 203 colleges in 48 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, were selected to participate in the pilot by the U.S. Department of Education, with Vera providing technical assistance.

College In Prison


In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education announced the Second Chance Pell Experimental Site Initiative (ESI) to test new models to allow incarcerated Americans to receive Pell Grants and pursue postsecondary education and training with the goal of helping them get jobs, support their families, and turn their lives around. Vera was selected by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance to provide implementation support to the selected sites.

Under the ESI, the Secretary has authority to grant waivers from certain Title IV Higher Education Act (HEA) statutory or regulatory requirements to allow a limited number of institutions to participate in experiments to test alternative methods for administering the Title IV HEA programs. Second Chance Pell will allow participating institutions of higher education (IHE), in partnership with one or more Federal or State penal institutions, to provide Federal Pell Grant funding to otherwise eligible students who are incarcerated and who are eligible for release back into the community, particularly those who are likely to be released within five years of enrollment in the program.

The initiative will do the following:

  • Test whether participation in high-quality educational opportunities increases after access to financial aid for incarcerated adults is expanded
  • Examine how waiving the restriction on providing Pell Grants to individuals incarcerated in Federal or State penal institutions influences academic and life outcomes and
  • Facilitate efforts by institutions to test certain innovative practices aimed at improving student outcomes and the delivery of services.

    This map depicts the selected college-prison partnerships.

Second Chance Pell demonstrated that people in prison want and can succeed in postsecondary education, if given the opportunity, and that their educational credentials set them up for success as they reenter the community. Based on the learnings and data from Second Chance Pell, Vera and coalition partners successfully advocated for the passage of the FAFSA Simplification Act, which reinstates access to Pell Grants for eligible incarcerated students. Once implemented on July 1, 2023, tens of thousands of people in prison will become eligible for the financial aid they need to pursue life-changing education.

Ensuring equity in college access and completion

Preliminary data collected through Second Chance Pell suggests that prison classrooms may be more representative of Black students than are classrooms on a college’s main campus. But compared to the demographics of the prison population, classrooms in prison are generally under-representative of students of color.

As access to postsecondary education in prison continues to grow, Unlocking Potential is working to help ensure equity for students in postsecondary education in prison programs. We’re partnering with departments of corrections and colleges in Michigan, Oklahoma, and Washington to conduct equity assessments, pilot interventions, and measure outcomes.

Empowering states to lead the way

The restoration of Pell Grants holds tremendous promise for the expansion of higher education in prisons—but quantity does not equal quality. Unlocking Potential is running a professional development program for corrections education directors, partnering with college accreditation agencies, and supporting the development of state systems to oversee and ensure high-quality postsecondary education systems in prison.

  • Launched in 2021, the Corrections Education Leadership Academy (CELA) helps participants build key skills including aligning corrections policies with state workforce and educational goals, adopting innovations in adult education and workforce development, partnering with colleges and community-based organizations, addressing racial and gender equity, and using secure educational technology.
  • Unlocking Potential also works to influence standards for college-in-prison programs. Vera is partnering with college accreditation agencies and correctional accreditation committees to ensure quality measures for postsecondary educational programs align with the FAFSA Simplification Act and regulations from the U.S. Department of Education.
Preparing for Pell reinstatement

Browse all Unlocking Potential publications, webinars, and videos, as well as links to relevant external sites where visitors can find more information about Second Chance Pell, Pell reinstatement, and more.

Knowledge Bank

Contact us
Margaret diZerega Initiative Director, Unlocking Potential mdiZerega@vera.org (213) 416-6714
Ruth Delaney Associate Initiative Director rdelaney@vera.org (212) 376-3035
Our research

Related news & stories


Launching a college program in prison is challenging but educators agree the experience is immensely rewarding for students, teachers and staff alike.

Sep 23, 2021