Pell Grants for Prisoners: A Good Idea Returns

It is often said that prison is where criminals go to learn how to be better criminals. In the absence of other educational opportunities, that's not terribly surprising. But what if they could use that time to gain valuable skills and credentials that would help them get jobs when they leave prison? In fact, there is solid evidence that access to education in jail helps prisoners succeed on the outside. According to a 2013 study from the RAND Corporation, prisoners who participated in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years of release than prisoners who did not participate in these programs. We also know that opportunity is fundamentally linked to education when the vast majority of family-sustaining jobs require a college degree.

The Obama Administration connected these dots and announced the Second Chance Pell Pilot program this week. The pilot will provide Pell Grants to a limited number of incarcerated students on an experimental basis to cover the costs of pursuing postsecondary education and training. Since the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, federal and state prisoners have been ineligible for these funds. But this pilot marks renewed interest in exploring the potential of correctional education programs to facilitate re-entry efforts and reduce the rate of recidivism. Inmates who will be eligible to receive Pell Grants must meet all other Title IV requirements and be slated for release, particularly in the next five years.

While funding for correctional education programs have been slashed in the past two decades, our prison population has grown precipitously. Indeed, America’s prison population dwarfs that of other nations with some 1.6 million people currently incarcerated. And this population has extremely low levels of education attainment: In federal prison, 40 percent of inmates have no high school diploma; and a mere 16 percent of prisoners in state facilities have graduated high school or received an equivalent credential. Without credentials, attaining family-sustaining employment on the outside can be a major hurdle. The effects of this challenge are rarely confined to the former inmate, but are instead felt throughout a community via increased rates of unemployment, poverty, and, ultimately, crime.

But education also has ripple effects, especially for inmates with young children. Without access to several forms of public assistance, the economic stakes are high for the families of former inmates. If prisoners are able to use their time in jail productively to earn a postsecondary degree, they will be in a better position to support their families at a time of a rising cost of living for households. There are also intangible benefits of providing funding for education to prisoners: the experience of earning a postsecondary degree could begin a family tradition of attending college. Children who are raised by parents with college degrees are significantly more likely to be encouraged to attend college than children raised by parents who did not.

Critics of the plan will say that we can't afford it. The Pell Grant program is already stretched thin and if we are going to expand access to it, it should be for students who haven't committed crimes. But how much is it costing us every time an individual, having repaid their debt to society, returns home only to discover they cannot get a job? According to the Rand Study, for every dollar invested in education programs for incarcerated students, four to five dollars are saved on three year re-incarceration costs.

It's easy to get caught up in arguments about who is more deserving. But with the largest prison population in the developed world, and alarming numbers of low-skilled adults who cannot effectively participate in today's economy, these arguments are self-defeating. Withholding educational opportunities to prisoners only sets them up for failure when they return to society. When it comes to today's prison population, many are in need of a second chance – a second chance to get their lives on track, a second chance to build a stable future for their families, and a second chance for their communities to reap the benefits of a citizen who is thriving, both socially and economically.

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Authors:

Mary Alice McCarthy is the director of the Center on Education and Skills with the Education Policy program at New America. Her work examines the intersection between higher education, workforce development, and job training policies

Patricia Hart was a policy analyst in the Asset Building program at New America where she provided research and analysis on a range of topics, including affordable housing, financial inclusion, and workforce development.