Federal Pell Grant eligibility for people in county jails or juvenile hall

January 1, 2015

by Dorsey Nunn


When I was in prison, I used to work out with heavy weights constantly. But when I started to understand that my best chances of survival were actually centered on education, I focused more on that instead, and it has made all the difference in the kind of life I now have. When I was released, having a student aid package was what kept me from having to go back into the underground economy in order to survive.

On Monday, Dec. 8, 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a Correctional Education Guidance Package designed to improve the quality of education services provided to America’s estimated 60,000 incarcerated young people. The Guidance Package was released as part of a series of efforts to address interactions between youth and the criminal justice system and builds on recommendations in President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force report.

The Guidance Package does not change any federal or state law, but instead articulates best-practices recommendations for providing education in correctional institutions based on respect for safety, prioritizing education in institutions, adequate funding, qualified educational staff and relevant curricula.

The Guidance Package clarifies Federal Pell Grant eligibility for students who are incarcerated in county jails or juvenile justice facilities (JJFs). Although incarcerated students may not receive loans under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, they may in some cases receive Federal Pell Grants.

As the Guidance Package makes clear, only those students who are incarcerated at a “Federal or State penal institution” or who are “subject to an involuntary civil commitment upon completion of a period of incarceration for a forcible or non-forcible sexual offense” are ineligible for Pell Grants. See 34 CFR sec. 668.32(c)(2)(ii).

Students incarcerated in county jails or JJFs, who are otherwise eligible, may receive Federal Pell Grants regardless of the student’s age, type or length of sentence, or whether the student was adjudicated as a juvenile or an adult. This also means that if you are in the county jail as a result of having a felony changed to a misdemeanor under Prop 47 or were sentenced to serve your sentence there under realignment, you are eligible for a Federal Pell Grant.

In addition, you can receive a Pell Grant if you are taking correspondence courses as long as your courses are toward an associate, bachelor or graduate degree. Also, your school should not provide more than 50 percent of its courses or serve more than 50 percent of its students through correspondence. (The school also may not have more than 25 percent incarcerated students.)

Students seeking Pell Grants must apply using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. The only conviction “box” on the form asks if the applicant has ever been convicted of a drug possession or sale offense while receiving federal student aid.

California has made a decision to house a greater number of prisoners in the county jails. If you are on the outside reading this and are concerned about folks occupying cages in local detention facilities, please reach out and tell someone on the inside.

If we fail to tell the people about something like this, we are reconstructing Juneteenth – the time that enslaved people in south Texas were not told they were freed until several years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.

For those of you on the inside reading this, please spread the word!

Dorsey Nunn is executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), which organizes communities directly impacted by the criminal justice system. He is also a co-founder of All of Us or None, a project of LSPC by and for formerly incarcerated people working for their civil and human rights. Email him at info@prisonerswithchildren.org.