“Second Chance” Pell Grants Present Enormous Opportunity for Texas


A recent change made to the federal Pell Grants program has major implications for Texas.

Late last year, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, a vast spending package that included the second round of aid meant to combat the pandemic. Buried within the 2,124 page bill, legislators expanded eligibility for federal financial aid to incarcerated students pursuing a higher education, overturning a ban that had been in place since 1994.

Momentum had been building for this change. The positive effects of prison education programs are well-documented: A 2014 report by the RAND Corporation estimated a 43% reduction in recidivism for participants compared with non-participants, and proponents have long touted their efficacy at improving stability and security within facilities. In 2015, the Obama Administration launched the Second Chance Pell pilot program, which, according to the Department of Education, has reached 22,000 incarcerated enrollees and yielded over 7,000 credentials. The Trump Administration expanded the program in 2020. 

With 122,000 persons currently confined in Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) facilities, the expansion of Pell Grant eligibility presents a singular opportunity for the state to reduce recidivism, enhance its workforce, and improve public safety—all while using almost exclusively federal funds. Although higher education in Texas prisons is not a foreign concept (Lee College, for example, has been operating in TDCJ’s Huntsville facilities since 1966), truly reaping the benefits will require commitment and coordination from the Legislature and executive agencies. If done properly, Texas could become a national model for educational rehabilitation and successful re-entry.

So how do we get there? As an extension of our existing Criminal Justice project and emerging work to support successful re-entry for formerly incarcerated individuals, Texas Appleseed will offer a detailed set of recommendations in a forthcoming report. In the meantime, here are a few brief suggestions: 

  • Commit to rehabilitation. No amount of federal funding and willing institutional partners will enable success without a shared commitment from legislators, appropriators, and agency leadership to a model of educational rehabilitation and supported re-entry for incarcerated persons. Notably, this commitment should extend to all TDCJ inmates, irrespective of their specific convictions or time remaining on their sentences.  
  • See the big picture. Successful implementation would see a variety of workforce, associate, and bachelor’s degree programs operated by several public institutions of higher education in TDCJ’s facilities and units across the state. Without careful planning and a unified vision amongst all involved parties, there is a substantial risk of creating wasteful, duplicative programs or a labyrinthine bureaucracy that inmates—who have, at best, limited access to information—cannot navigate successfully.   
  • Coordinate. Similar to the planning process, constant coordination between TDCJ, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), and institutions is essential to identifying and disseminating best practices, resolving issues as they arise, and maintaining an efficient and effective system. 
  • Split up the work. TDCJ maintains full control of current higher education programs in its facilities, including requesting and forming partnerships with institutions, selecting eligible students, deciding what infrastructure is or is not obtained or installed, and passing funding along to its partners. This is not necessarily optimal. While maintaining its physical facilities and ensuring security clearly are within the agency’s purview, some of the educational functions, most notably program identification, implementation, and evaluation, can and should be conducted by higher education experts at THECB and partner institutions in consultation with TDCJ. Leveraging existing expertise allows for better resource allocation and ultimately more effective programming.
  • Remove barriers to prospective students. As with traditional higher education, the more obstacles placed before incarcerated students—administrative, financial, or otherwise—the lower the chance of enrollment and ultimately success. Removing such barriers can take many forms. Some considerations could include:
    • Developing a clear list of existing programs and their requirements (a sort of “roadmap” for prospective students); 
    • Eliminating requirements that loan-based financial aid be repaid as a condition of parole, which is current policy and dramatically increases the risk to the prospective student; and
    • Facilitating transfer of credits for students who wish to complete their degrees post-release.
  • Invest. While Pell Grants will assist students with tuition and fees and sustain programs long-term, some investment will be required up front to maximize success. These could include computers with secure internet access to facilitate teaching and study, agency staffing to ensure programs are run effectively, and supports to assist students with leveraging their education upon re-entry.
  • Rigorously evaluate programs. Data should be integrated at every step of the process to ensure success, from considering workforce information in program development to conducting rigorous reviews of outcomes. Notably, these data should be available to the general public and academic communities for wider research—not just state agencies. This would not only ensure that taxpayer dollars are well-spent, but also enable future innovations.

The mission of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is “to provide public safety, promote positive change in offender behavior, reintegrate offenders into society and assist victims of crime.” Promoting higher education in prisons is humane, cost-effective, and fully aligned with the state’s public safety and workforce goals. With changes to federal law approaching in 2023, Texas has a golden opportunity. Let’s not miss it.