Update, January 12, 2021: On December 27, 2020, 10 days after the publication of this timeline, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 was signed into law. The joint omnibus budget bill and COVID-19 relief bill made significant changes to the Higher Education Act, including to the financial aid eligibility of college students with criminal convictions. The timeline has been updated to reflect these changes.
Federal lawmakers determine which students get financial aid for college, and perhaps no population has been viewed as less deserving of aid than college students with criminal convictions. The timeline below plots each time the federal financial aid eligibility rules were changed for these students, and the trend is clear: Since the 1960s, federal lawmakers have repeatedly sought to restrict financial aid access from students with certain criminal convictions and students in prison. Only a few times has Congress expanded aid to these students, mostly in recent years. Now, as momentum grows for restoring Pell Grants to students in prison and removing the drug conviction question from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), this timeline makes clear that it will not be a simple task to reverse the long-running trend of taking away financial aid from these students.
The Higher Education Act of 1965, which created the foundation for today’s federal need-based grants and student loans, contained no eligibility restrictions based on an applicant’s criminal record. Students in prison benefited from these early programs, especially following the creation of the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant—later renamed the Pell Grant—in 1972. Incarcerated students qualified for Pell Grants based on financial need and academic qualifications just as nonincarcerated students did, and this new flow of federal financial aid fueled the development of new prison higher education programs. Surveys show that the number of adult prisons that offered postsecondary education programs grew from 46 in 1967 to 218 by 1973. Not long after these aid programs were created, however, lawmakers began to place new restrictions on students with criminal convictions, ultimately resulting in the loss of loan and Pell Grant eligibility for all students in prison.
Each event on the timeline below represents a change to the financial aid eligibility of college students with criminal convictions. Changes made by Congress are denoted with the title of the federal act where the new eligibility rules were created—for example, the Higher Education Amendments of 1968. All other changes are administrative actions made by the U.S. Department of Education. Policies marked with an asterisk (*) remain in effect for students as of 2020.
Bradley D. Custer is a senior policy analyst for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.