There is growing recognition that people in prison deserve access to higher education, and financial aid to pay for college in prison is key to that access. On July 31, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a historic bill that would restore Pell Grant eligibility to students enrolled in prison higher education programs. If approved by the U.S. Senate, it would reverse a 25-year ban, bringing federal financial aid to hundreds of thousands of incarcerated students nationwide. At the state level, lawmakers in Michigan and New Jersey recently restored state grant access to college students in prison by eliminating bans on aid to these students. Unfortunately, that leaves 33 states with statutory bans on aid to students in prison or with past criminal convictions. One of those states—Pennsylvania—deserves a closer look for a hidden, antiquated rule that blocks all students in prison from getting state financial aid.
Pennsylvania is one of seven states that requires some or all financial aid applicants to have “good moral character” in order to be eligible. While the rule is ignored in most of those states, in Pennsylvania, having “unsatisfactory character” is used to justify denying financial aid to as many as 16,700 potential students in state prisons. Eliminating this vague rule, in tandem with the restoration of federal Pell Grants, would have the potential to put transformative higher education within reach for thousands more students.
What is good moral character?
The term “good moral character” is common throughout American law, and would-be lawyers encounter a character test when applying to the bar, as do those seeking U.S. citizenship. The phrase lacks a clear definition, but most commonly, good moral character means having no criminal history. People with criminal convictions are typically considered not to have good moral character under the law. As a result, every state puts at least some restrictions on people with criminal convictions, which can include denial of employment, licensure, and public benefits.
Good moral character rules also exist in financial aid laws. The author’s historical review of state-funded scholarship programs, to be published in the Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal, found that 54 programs across 32 states at some point required good moral character—the earliest being Massachusetts’s 1853 State Scholarship for Teachers and the most recent being South Carolina’s 1996 Need-Based Grant. Most of these programs no longer exist, and of those that do, most no longer maintain the good moral character rule. Yet 12 grant programs with these requirements still exist in seven states, including the largest need-based grants in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, as well as smaller grants in Alabama, Illinois, New Mexico, and Virginia.
How Pennsylvania defines a student with good moral character
In Pennsylvania, an incarcerated student’s inability to get financial aid hinges on the statutory character requirement and how the state has chosen to interpret it. When the Pennsylvania State Grant was created in 1966, the General Assembly mandated that financial aid applicants “shall satisfactorily meet the qualifications of ‘financial need,’ character and academic promise, as well as academic achievement.” Because “character” was not defined in the state scholarship law, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) created regulations to define and enforce the character clause. Fitting with contemporary interpretations of character, the agency barred applicants with criminal convictions. In the 1970s and 1980s, PHEAA faced lawsuits and other complaints from financial aid applicants who lost aid access due to the regulations. After years of tinkering, by 1988, PHEAA determined that anyone currently in prison would be considered to have unsatisfactory character and would therefore be ineligible for the Pennsylvania State Grant. Anyone not in prison, regardless of past convictions, would be assumed to possess satisfactory character—an inherently arbitrary distinction.
PHEAA now applies this regulation to all its aid programs, making incarcerated students ineligible for all state financial aid. This includes the Pennsylvania State Grant, its largest need-based program; the Targeted Industry Program; the Ready to Success Scholarship; the Blind or Deaf Higher Education Beneficiary Grant; and others.
To get a sense of how many incarcerated people might be blocked by the character requirement, estimates of potential Pell Grant recipients can be used to approximate the number of students who may also qualify for need-based state financial aid. As many as 12,000 to 16,700 people in Pennsylvania state prisons could be eligible for federal Pell Grants based on financial need and academic eligibility, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. However, in part due to the lack of federal and state financial aid for students, Pennsylvania’s prison higher education programs do not have the capacity to support this many students; only 83 Pennsylvania students were enrolled in coursework offered by the four institutions approved through the Second Chance Pell program in its first three years. A new stream of state financial aid could enable more incarcerated students to enroll, expanding program capacity for more course offerings and students.
Eliminating good moral character requirements
There are two ways to turn on the flow of state financial aid to students in Pennsylvania’s prisons. First, eliminating the character requirement from the Pennsylvania scholarship law would knock down PHEAA’s authority to deny financial aid to incarcerated students. This would require action from the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Fortunately, history shows that removing good moral character requirements is possible: Between 1980 and 2003, lawmakers from eight states eliminated the character requirements from 10 active financial aid grant programs, according to the author’s analysis.
Second, PHEAA could issue new regulations that reinterpret the character statute. Instead of equating imprisonment with unsatisfactory character, PHEAA could define good character more broadly. Here again, history provides solutions. Illinois financial aid officials grappled with how to define good moral character in the state’s main scholarship program in the 1970s and 1980s. By 1986, they determined that a student had good moral character “if the applicant will benefit from postsecondary instruction and is allowed to enroll at an approved postsecondary institution.” By design, this definition permitted awarding scholarships to students in Illinois prisons. A similar definition of good character in Pennsylvania would immediately trigger a change in eligibility for incarcerated students.
People with criminal convictions are slowly regaining access to financial aid for college. Campaigns are underway in New York and elsewhere to overturn long-standing barriers in state financial aid, and Congress looks poised to end the Pell Grant ban soon. In Pennsylvania, however, the good moral character law continues to be a barrier for incarcerated students. For more than 30 years, this outmoded rule has been used to deny financial aid to students in prisons, and it is past time to reevaluate this policy. State lawmakers and agency officials can take action today to begin awarding financial aid to thousands of deserving college students.
Bradley D. Custer is a senior policy analyst for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.