The United States government sets aside millions of dollars every year specifically to help out college students with the cost of their tuition. Any U.S. citizen—or eligible non-citizen that has the appropriate documentation—can apply for funding from this pool of money by completing something called the FAFSA: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
While every single applicant for the FAFSA won’t necessarily be eligible for funding, there is an additional reason to complete the form. Your chosen college can use the information that you’ve provided to decide whether you might be eligible for any of the college-specific scholarships or grants. This is invaluable for incarcerated students because there are certain limitations around which federal funding you can or cannot apply for while serving a sentence—and there are some limitations around funding available post-release depending on what crime you were convicted for.
There’s also something called a work study program at many colleges, which allows students to work on campus in various departments, but this is off the table for incarcerated inmates due to limitations on freedom. Instead, inmates may be able to gain funding under a federal work-study job, though limitations on movement, time-management, and freedom can make this difficult.
Even if you have a criminal record, you’re still eligible to apply for financial aid to help you with the costs of gaining an education. Though there are eligibility limitations in place for currently-incarcerated students, most of them are lifted as soon as you’re released from prison, increasing your chances of landing financial support. There are also many scholarships that do not require you to provide details of your conviction history.
The Cost of an Education
According to one report on the 2017 – 2018 academic year, researchers found that the average cost of college was $20,770 for in-state public schools and $46,950 for non-profit private schools. This accounted for tuition, fees, and room and board. Of course, studying as an incarcerated student won’t be the same; for a start, room and board are not required, as most courses will have to be delivered over distance learning owing to restrictions on freedom and movement.
For prison education courses, it’s common to pay for credit modules individually. Payment for a course is typically made when applying for the course materials. Inmates will usually browse from a list of available courses, from a catalog provided by the education institution, before sending an order form with payment attached. There’s no fixed price across the board for these courses or modules, and the price can vary widely from one college or university to another.
For example, at Adam’s State University—one of the top correspondence course providers—inmates can expect to pay approximately $200 per semester hour. But at some colleges and universities, this can rise to around double that price. Other universities offer fixed-fee courses, such as Texas State University, where an undergraduate course is around $850 to $1,150. You can find more information on prison education and the pricing for 5 of the top correspondence course providers by checking out our Guide to Prison Education.
While some private and public grants and scholarships can help cover the cost of education, federal student aid is usually the first port of call for prospective students looking for financial support, so we’ll explore that first. Any student who wants to apply for federal student aid will need to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as the FAFSA.
Completing the FAFSA
Completing a FAFSA won’t cost you a thing. You may come across some websites that promise to help you through the process for a fee, but you should avoid them; it’s straightforward and free. If you’re already prepared to complete your FAFSA, you can do so via the Federal Student Aid website. Once you’ve submitted your FAFSA, you’ll need to wait around three to four weeks, at which point you’ll receive something called the Student Aid Report, or SAR. If you note any mistakes, you can rectify them using the SAR if you applied through the post, or online if you applied online.
Advice for Completing the FAFSA
Making mistakes in your application for student aid could delay any payments that you become eligible for, which could subsequently result in you missing the start of your course (where fixed term dates apply). So, here’s some advice on ensuring that you complete your FAFSA correctly:
- Before starting your application, make sure that you understand the federal student aid eligibility requirements. You should also familiarize yourself with requirements on staying eligible throughout your time studying.
- Don’t skip over the instructions and guidance provided within the FAFSA, as it could lead to mistakes that will delay your application. If you’re applying through the post, this is especially important, as delays can be lengthy.
- Make sure that you’ve prepared all the supporting documents you’ll need. In prison, coming by such documentation can take time, as you’ll likely rely on friends and family. You’ll need your Social Security number and tax information for the preceding year.
- Once you’ve completed the FAFSA, double-check everything before you submit it.
If you’ve been given internet access to apply for the FAFSA online, you’ll need a PIN number to submit your application; this is allocated through the FAFSA website, as well as being mailed to you. Keep a safe record of your PIN, as it’ll be needed each time you want to log in.
More Information for Incarcerated Students or Ex-Offenders
As we’ve mentioned, drug-related offenses can lead to a loss in eligibility for federal student aid. However, fortunately the FAFSA has been updated recently and as a result means that you do not always need to provide information about past convictions. The section in question reads as follows: “Have you ever been convicted for the possession or sale of illegal drugs for an offense that occurred while you were receiving federal student aid (grants, loans, and/or work-study)?”
If any of the following conditions are true, then you may answer no and remain eligible for aid:
- You’ve never been convicted for selling or possessing illegal drugs;
- The conviction in question was not a federal or state offense;
- You were convicted before the age of 18 and were not tried as an adult;
- The conviction was purged from your record;
- The offense leading to your conviction was not committed whilst already in receipt of federal student aid.
If you do have to answer yes to this question, it doesn’t automatically make you ineligible for aid. In this case, you should refer to the Drug Conviction Worksheet provided within your FAFSA application. It could be that you are still eligible to apply. For a formerly incarcerated student making a college application and considering his or her life after release, there are a few more things to keep in mind.
- If possible, try to attend an information session at your prospective college. This should give you the opportunity to speak privately with somebody who’s knowledgeable about your course; you should check whether somebody with your conviction history is likely to be accepted into the course.
- Collate any letters and personal recommendations that you can obtain from people like probation officers, rehabilitation professionals, and any other respectable people who aren’t related to you. If you can get recommendations from these people stating that you’re a reformed citizen, it could be useful for college applications and future employment.
- Educate yourself with the exact details of your criminal record so that you know what information is kept about you. Make sure you know how best to frame your record when speaking about it to interviewers.
Even if you’re fairly certain that your past convictions will make you ineligible for federal student aid, it’s still worth completing the form, as colleges will use the information to help determine whether you’re eligible for their own grants and scholarships.
Obtaining and Understanding Your Criminal Record
As a formerly incarcerated inmate seeking education or employment, obtaining a copy of your criminal record and understanding the information that it holds is important. These are records that most prospective colleges and employers are going to be able to see, so you should go into any interviews completely prepared for what they may ask.
Fortunately, there is a way to obtain your criminal record. What’s more, mistakes can and do often get noted on your record, so checking the information held is critical. Most states have an office that stores criminal records and you can find out where yours is by going to the National HIRE website and checking the Resources and Assistance section. Here are some important things to know about your record and getting a copy:
- Some states may charge a fee for providing a copy of your record;
- There are special codes on each record that can be difficult to understand, so make sure you ask any questions you have that will help to fully interpret the report;
- There could be mistakes on your record—crimes that got dismissed or for which you were acquitted—and you may be able to have them sealed from the public domain or removed entirely;
- For some convictions served in a state prison, it may be possible to get an official pardon or rehabilitation certificate that could reinstate rights or privileges you’ve lost.
When it comes to gaining federal student aid as an incarcerated or formerly-incarcerated student, there are unfortunately limitations on the funding available. So, we’ve put together a list of frequently asked questions that should help clear up any confusion over what you are and are not likely to be eligible for.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will Certain Convictions Affect My Financial Aid Application?
When you’re released from prison, most eligibility limitations for federal financial aid are removed. You can even submit a FAFSA while incarcerated if you’re close to your release date, so that the aid is processed in time for your release. However, if your conviction was for a drug-related offense or you’re subject to an involuntary civil commitment for a crime of a sexual nature, then your eligibility could be forfeit.
Your eligibility could also be affected if the crime committed was while you were receiving federal aid. Also, if convicted of a drug-related offense after submitting the FAFSA and receiving aid, you might be ordered to return the money. Bear in mind that ineligibility resulting from a drug-related conviction doesn’t mean that you’re barred from receiving funding for life. If you complete an approved drug rehabilitation program, then you may be able to regain eligibility.
If I’m Incarcerated, Am I Still Eligible for Federal Financial Aid?
There are two parts to this question, as it depends on whether you are serving time within a federal or state institution, or whether you’re incarcerated at a different type of facility.
Unfortunately, incarcerated students who are currently serving time in a federal or state facility are not eligible for a Federal Pell Grant nor federal student loans, but you can apply for the FSEOG. That said, priority is given to students who will also be in receipt of the Pell Grant. This can make it more difficult for inmates to gain financial support, as it leaves a smaller allocation of funding once non-incarcerated students have been accounted for.
However, if you’re in an institution other than a federal or state institution, then while you can’t apply for federal student loans, you can apply for a Federal Pell Grant. You’re also eligible to apply for FSEOG though funds are again limited. Since the Pell Grant is awarded to all eligible students that apply, this may be a great source of help.
What if I’m on Parole or on Probation?
Being on parole or probation is different to being incarcerated when it comes to applying for funding from the government. Once you have served your time within an institution, most eligibility restrictions are lifted. However, it remains that if you were convicted of a drug-related offense or have been made subject to a sexual offense order, you may still be ineligible unless you have completed an approved course.
What if I’m Asked About My Conviction at an Admissions Interview?
As an ex-offender, you may be wondering whether your conviction is likely to come up as a point of discussion during a college admissions interview. It’s entirely possible that the panel may ask about your conviction, but it’s best to be honest and straightforward; don’t try to hide it. You should talk about what you learned from the experience, showing humility and remorse. Show how the experience changed you for the better and above all, don’t speak negatively about the justice system or victims of your crime.
If you can supplement your admissions application or interview with letters of recommendation, then these can also be beneficial. For example, if you relationship with your probation officer is good, they may be willing to support your application. Recommendations from local pastors or other religious figures can often go a long way toward a prospective student’s application.
Are Ex-Offenders Offered any Additional Support by Colleges?
The fact is that educational institutions offer resources and support to all their enrolled students, regardless of whether they’re an ex-offender. However, some colleges may have special mentoring programs to support ex-offenders. It’s worth speaking to student assistance bodies at the institution or the Dean of Students. Hopefully, your time spent in a correctional facility will have taught you valuable time-management and discipline skills that are transferable into a structured study timetable.
Grants and Scholarships
These terms are used interchangeably quite frequently, which can be confusing. However, there are differences between the two. The largest—and perhaps most important—commonality with them both is that neither of these types of funding have to be repaid, so they won’t be stacked onto your college debt. Thus, if you’re eligible for any type of grant or scholarship, you should make sure that you apply for it.
Grants are normally awarded to students who need them most, which is usually those from the lowest income backgrounds. The federal government awards two major study-based grants, which are called the Pell Grant and the Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant, or FSEOG. Neither needs to be repaid, but crucially, you won’t be considered for either of these grants unless you’ve filled out the FAFSA.
The Pell Grant is the most commonly-awarded grant given out by the federal government, given to those students who have the greatest financial need—it never has to be repaid. Each semester, eligible students could receive as much as $6,095 as of the 2018 – 2019 academic year. Funding from a Pell Grant can be put towards either credit or non-credit courses, but there must be evidence that you’re making progress towards a degree to remain eligible throughout your college studies. Unfortunately, non-credit courses do not contribute towards your degree, so we would recommend only using funding towards credit modules to avoid any risk to your funding.
It’s fortunate that inmates are able to apply for this funding at all. Since 1994, there had been a congressional ban on prisoners being given access to such funds. This remained in place until 2015, when the Obama administration, determined to give inmates more college opportunities, funded a pilot study to bring the Pell Grant to incarcerated inmates. This was not without opposition from certain areas of the government, but the pilot was successful and began its fourth year in 2019 as ‘The Second Chance Pell Pilot’. Around 1,000 inmates have graduated with post-secondary or college qualifications since the pilot began.
Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant
Like the Pell Grant, the FSEOG is also awarded by the federal government, but it is reserved only for students who are in dire financial need. It is also different from the Pell Grant in how funding is allocated. As a limited amount of funding is granted to each institution per year, once the full amount has been awarded to students, no more awards can be allocated in that academic year. Conversely, the Pell Grant provides funding to every single eligible student, making it a more reliable source of funds for students in serious need of support. Eligible students can receive as much as $4,000 per semester toward the costs of their course.
To ensure your continued eligibility for FSEOG throughout your education, you’ll need to maintain your enrollment as an undergraduate. You will also need to make sure that you remember to complete the FAFSA form for every year of study at your institution, otherwise you could lose your funding when the next academic year begins. FSEOG payments are either credited directly to your student account or paid directly to you. Institutions will typically make payments at least once each term, though schools that do not use terms must disburse funds at least twice within each academic year.
While scholarships do not need to be repaid to the government, unlike grants, they are not awarded to students based on an assessment of financial need. Instead, they can be given to students based on a number of characteristics, such as academic ability, athletic ability, and more. High performance in academic studies can result in academic scholarships being offered, while athletes who succeed in sports such as basketball and football may be offered athletic scholarships, which require the student to continue to play for their college or university while studying.
There are also ‘general scholarships’, which can be awarded to anybody who meets the eligibility criteria. Criteria for general scholarships can vary from one state to another and be determined by financial need or academic achievement, which usually means having a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or above. However, if you’ve recently been released from prison, you may still be able to get a general scholarship providing you meet the existing pre-requisites.
10 of the Best Scholarships for Formerly Incarcerated Students
So, while your conviction may lead to you being ineligible for federal student aid, scholarships could provide an alternative avenue of funding. The range of scholarships is broad and you can locate scholarships that you may be eligible for by using websites such as Scholarships.com and FinAid. These useful resources cover most of the public and private scholarships available in the US. You can also use Scholarship Finder, a tool sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).
We’ve picked out 10 potential scholarships that accept applications from formerly incarcerated students or inmates currently residing in correctional institutions. Many of these scholarships give preference to such students over regular applicants, increasing your chances of securing aid. Again, you should make sure you read any eligibility requirements to see whether you qualify.
- The Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration
This branch of the Department of Labor awards Reentry Project grants each year, committing around $85.9 million towards prison-based education and training. While this is not a specific grant that you can apply for—rather, it is a government fund distributed to meaningful projects—you can see the list of regional projects towards which the funding went. If you click through the above link, you’ll be able to search for these individual sources of funding to find out more about them.
- The Prison Scholar Fund
The Prison Scholar Fund is a privately-run organization relying on donations. It provides a scholarship-type source of funding for inmates who are currently serving time for a conviction. Thus far, the organization has seen nearly 130 inmates successfully pass their courses, with a success rate of 96%. To check out the application instructions and eligibility criteria, click here. This scholarship isn’t available to those who have been released from prison, and those who have less than six months remaining on their sentences are unlikely to receive funding approval.
- Prison Education Foundation
The Prison Education Foundation has a strict set of eligibility criteria for their scholarships, but providing you meet these requirements, they offer funding for a full associates or bachelor’s degree while incarcerated. Preference is also given to inmates who have already earned their GED during the course of their conviction, promoting further education within correctional facilities.
Unfortunately, even with good intentions, some inmates don’t always see their course through to the end. Due to this, scholarships are usually paid out incrementally, as well as being based on academic performance. The first payment will usually cover a maximum of 4 credit hours. The Prison Education Foundation prefers when inmates enroll in two classes totaling 8 credit hours, covering half of the tuition themselves.
Ex-prisoners who were incarcerated within a local jail or state or federal prison within the past 12 months may also apply for a scholarship. There’s a prerequisite that you’ve already applied for and received all federal student aid to which you are entitled.
- Transcending Through Education Foundation
The Transcending Through Education Foundation (TTEF) annually provides two types of scholarships. The first is awarded to inmates currently pursuing higher education within a correctional facility, while the second is awarded to inmates transitioning out of incarceration. The maximum amount available is $1,000, which can be put toward the cost of tuition, course materials, or school fees. You can read more about this scholarship here.
- College and Paralegal Scholarships for Incarcerated People
While it’s a smaller and lesser-known scholarship, we’ve included this one because in 2016, the organization handed three scholarships to incarcerated sex workers. Given the stigma associated with such crimes and the strict eligibility rules for federal financial aid, this is a scholarship that could benefit those who have been turned down for other student funding. This organization also awards scholarships for Adam’s State University, which is one of the top institutions for correspondence courses.
- Dennis J. Beck Memorial Scholarship
The Dennis J. Beck Memorial Scholarship is designed to help graduating seniors from the local Jackson County high schools, or other residents enrolled in colleges. Eligibility is fairly strict; successful applicants must be of an ethnic minority and enrolled in the Jackson College Prison Education Initiative, as well as being housed in a Jackson County Corrections facility. While this disqualifies a large portion of the incarcerated prison population across the U.S., it does make incarcerated residents of Jackson County far more likely to find some form of funding.
- Eileen J. Smith , R.N. Memorial Scholarship
The Eileen J. Smith, R.N. Memorial Scholarship, much like the Dennis J. Beck Scholarship, welcomes applications from “student[s] enrolled in the Jackson College Prison Education Initiative who [have] completed at least one semester and [are] housed in a Jackson County Corrections facility.”
- Bruce and Marjorie Sundlun Scholarship
The Bruce and Marjorie Sundlun Scholarship pays from $500 to $2,000 to “assist single parents in the pursuit of education beyond high school”. However, preference is given to parents who have previously been incarcerated. This is a refreshing change given that federal student aid prioritizes applications from students who do not have a previous conviction. However, there is a limitation in that only Rhode Island residents may apply for the scholarship.
- NYU scholarship for formerly-incarcerated students
New York University (NYU) will begin offering a new scholarship to formerly incarcerated students beginning in the fall of 2020. This comes off the back of a prison divestment campaign spearheaded jointly by the Incarceration to Education Coalition and Prison Industrial Complex Committee. Although we don’t know yet how much money the scholarship will award, the university has said that they’ll be offering two needs-based scholarships. It’s worth noting that NYU is an accredited university that also offers distance learning under the Prison Education Program, should you be able to fund your studies yourself. More information on NYU’s full list of scholarships can be found here.
- The Creative Corrections Education Foundation
The Creative Corrections Education Foundation, or CCEF for short, is a non-profit organization that provides scholarships (and other financial support) to children of incarcerated individuals, as well as at-risk young adults. This is the wild card on our list, as it doesn’t cater to incarcerated adults or those who have finished a sentence, but you might wish to learn more about how such scholarships can benefit your family too.
Federal Work-Study Programs
Another type of funding available to prospective college students with financial need is the Federal Work-Study program. It provides part-time employment to students that allows them to earn money that they can put toward the cost of their education. So, while it’s not a type of funding per-se, it does provide a means to cover the costs associated with course tuition.
While incarcerated students are not prohibited from taking part in a Federal Work-Study program, they may have difficulty doing so. According to the government’s student aid website, “you can get FSEOG and FWS, but you probably won’t because the logistical difficulties of performing an FWS job while incarcerated would likely be too great for you to be awarded FWS funds.” Many FWS roles take place on-campus which would be physically impossible while remaining inside of your correctional facility.
However, for recently released former-inmates seeking an education, the FWS program can be a valuable way to secure funding while simultaneously gaining work experience that boosts the chance of finding work after graduation. So, in case you do manage to find a FWS role whilst studying for your degree, we’ve listed some of the key things to remember about these types of roles.
- Accepting FWS funding doesn’t immediately give you a job
When you apply for Federal Work-Study funding, you’re not actually applying for a specific job. If you’re subsequently given the funding, you will still have to locate your own role and apply for it, just like any other job. This will usually also involve attending an interview. Until you’ve landed a role and begin working, your funds will be held back. Make sure you prepare well for any interviews that you’re successful in getting. Understand your criminal record and talk about it openly, while highlighting how your time incarcerated has helped you to learn and grow.
- You’ll be paid like an employee
This is another area in which FWS funding differs from other types of federal student aid. For example, federal student loans are paid towards your tuition, but FWS funds are paid to you as an ordinary paycheck would be. This is because they’re supposed to help you to cover day-to-day expenses, not your tuition. So, if you’re struggling with the cost of your course, it’s unlikely that FWS funding will be enough for you alone.
- Not all jobs are on-campus
It’s common to find FWS employment on-campus, such as working within a facility or library at the institution. However, not all jobs are based at the university or college itself; you may also find employment within a local school or social services organization. Ask your school where opportunities might be available and remember that until you secure a role, you won’t be able to draw on your funding. Make sure that you factor in any time required to travel to a place of work when calculating and managing your schedule alongside your studies.
- You could lose your FWS funding
Federal Work-Study funding isn’t automatically given to you for the entirety of your studies once you’ve been accepted. In fact, you have to submit an application every year and there are certain factors that can influence whether or not it is renewed. If your household income significantly rises from one year to the next, you could lose your right to funding, as FWS is needs-assessed. Also, if the school sees a significant drop in the funding available to allocate, then you may lose your right to funds.
- Not all roles are the same
Your expected hours and compensation can vary from one role to another. More qualified workers in positions of higher responsibility may expect to receive greater funding and a higher salary. Other factors can influence this too, such as state requirements around minimum wage or an organization’s own choice to pay a higher salary. Make sure that you don’t take on more hours than you can comfortably fit into your schedule, because although you need to cover the cost of college, your studies should be your priority. Check what hours you’ll be expected to work before taking on a job.
If you’ve recently been released from prison, you might be struggling to find employment and make ends meet. It’s ordinary for people to be in this position after serving a term in prison. Thankfully, there are other programs available that can help you to cover the costs of day-to-day life. We would never recommend prioritizing an educational course over immediate, basic needs like housing and food, but if the cost of your course is being covered and you want to go ahead with the opportunity, these options could help with basic needs.
One such program is the Social Security Administration, which provides financial benefits to any eligible citizens—this doesn’t exclude formerly incarcerated individuals. You could be eligible for Social Security benefits or Supplemental Social Security Income. You can find out more about these types of aid by going to the SSA website, here.
Every state in the U.S. participates in programs that are designed to offer financial support, food assistance, and health insurance. At a federal level, the food assistance program is known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Cash assistance is available under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Nonprofit and Charitable Organizations
There are countless organizations helping formerly incarcerated people at a local, community level, including social services agencies, charities, churches and other religious institutions, and nonprofits. Research what is available within your local area and see how they may be able to help you. Many will even help with food or clothes, and some do help with cash, like covering an essential bill for you.