Obama Restores Some Prisoners' Pell Grant Eligibility

The Department of Education announced a pilot program that will make some incarcerated people eligible for Pell Grants. Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

Some people in state and federal prisons will be eligible for Pell Grants under a program announced Friday by the U.S. Department of Education. The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program aims to help the incarcerated "get jobs, support their families and turn their lives around," the department said in a press release.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 established Pell Grants as a type of federally funded financial aid for college students that students do not need to repay. The government decides how much aid to award each student based on financial need, cost of the school, enrollment status and future enrollment plans. The maximum amount per student for the upcoming school year is $5,775.

In 1994, Congress passed a bill that made people in state and federal prisons ineligible for Pell Grants. By that time, according to The Washington Post, 25,168 of the 3.3 million students who received the grants were prisoners, costing the government $34.6 million of the $5.3 billion it spent on the program. Some politicians felt that slice was too much of the pie. "Law-abiding students have every right to be outraged when a Pell Grant for a policeman's child is cut, but a criminal that the officer sends to prison can still get a big check," a congressman said at the time.

On Friday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in the press release: "America is a nation of second chances. 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."

Studies show that prison education programs help reduce recidivism rates, which in effect save taxpayer money. In its release, the Department of Education cites a 2013 RAND Corporation study, commissioned by the Department of Justice, which found that incarcerated people who participated in education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than inmates who did not participate.

"We found that for every taxpayer dollar spent on correctional education, there is a five dollar savings due to released inmates desisting from crime and not returning to prison. From a straightforward public spending and public savings perspective, correctional education is a smart investment," Robert Bozick, a sociologist at the RAND Corporation who worked on the study, said via email.

He added: "Many folks question the benefit of providing education to criminals. However, the reality is that the majority of incarcerated individuals in this country will be released back into the community, living and working in our neighborhoods. Therefore, preparing them to successfully integrate back into our communities and resist returning to crime is in everyone's best interest."

Without grants, incarcerated people must pay for their own education while behind bars, said Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, a publication of the Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit group. "You have to be able to afford it and most students of course can't afford it if they're locked up because they make pretty low wages," he said. "So this new development, which we heard about earlier this year, is certainly a welcome change."

A number of schools offer degrees to people in prison, including Goucher College, Bard College, Grinnell College, Holy Cross College, Washington University and Wesleyan University. Those schools all belong to the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, which formed in 2009.

"There's nothing we do that's more effective or more inexpensive in American criminal punishment than education, particularly higher education," says Max Kenner, founder and executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, which has awarded about 350 college degrees since 1999. "It reduces recidivism, it reduces violence and it transforms the nature of the whole apparatus to one that, while not minimizing punishment whatsoever, treats people in the criminal justice system with dignity and returns them to the communities from which they came in a way that serves their communities' interest."

"This is a win-win. It helps society, it helps incarcerated students," Friedmann says. "The reason it's taken so long is strictly political."

As Inside Higher Ed points out, some politicians have already criticized the new program. "We should discuss whether this aid can help incarcerated individuals become productive members of society. Unfortunately, the [Obama] administration has chosen once again to stifle an important debate by acting unilaterally and without regard for the law," Republican Congressman John Kline of Minnesota said in a statement this week.

To participate, in the pilot program, incarcerated people must meet Title IX eligibility and be up for release from prison within five years. The deadline to apply is the end of September. Grants cover the 2016-2017 academic year.

The Pell program is part of a wider effort that the Obama administration is making to reform the criminal justice system and reduce the more than 1.5 million people currently in prison. Earlier this month, the president commuted the sentences of 46 inmates serving long terms for non-violent drug crimes, and he visited a federal prison in Oklahoma. Last year, a White House task force published a report about juvenile detention facilities that included recommendations that would expand educational opportunities for young inmates.