WASHINGTON — More than 20 years after banning prisoners from receiving student aid, some federal and state inmates could be eligible for Pell grant money to take college courses while still behind bars.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the administration’s new Second Chance Pell Pilot program during a visit Friday to the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup, Maryland.

“America is a nation of second chances,” Duncan said. “Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are. It can also be a cost-saver for taxpayers.”

The program will allow, on a temporary basis, federal grants to be used to cover college costs for prisoners for the first time since Congress excluded them from student aid in 1994. It will last three to five years and be open to prisoners who are eligible for release, particularly within the next five years. Inmates could be eligible for the money as early as the fall of 2016.

Republicans were quick to criticize the program, saying it rewards people who break the law at the expense of hard-working Americans and that the administration doesn’t have authority to act without an OK from Congress.

Republican Rep. Chris Collins of New York introduced legislation to block Pell money from being used in the experimental program, saying it will “put the cost of a free college education for criminals on the backs of the taxpayers.”

A Republican committee chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., an education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, said the administration should focus on existing job training and re-entry programs.