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Tuesday
Mar202018

Paying Debts to Society, but Unable to Pay for College

Prison reform in general is typically met with intense opposition by vocal anti-prisoner sentiment. Beyond the general, opposition climbs ever higher in regards to allotting federal funding to correctional education. Opponents balk at the idea of allowing incarcerated individuals access to federal funding in the form of Pell Grants – an argument that is difficult to contend with considering the rising costs of education and the stagnation of federal funding offered to the general population.

Amid what seems to be enduring “tough on crime” public sentiment, the 1994 Crime Bill withdrew eligibility for Pell Grants for any incarcerated individual. This remains the policy on Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals in effect today. Damage done by this bill meant that by 1997 only eight total programs for postsecondary correctional education remained in operation, where before there had been 350. Most of these programs were fortunate enough to have outside sources of funding. For the rest, the lack of funds to keep programs operational meant they forced to shut down. Funding remains a large obstacle to creating and sustaining correctional education programs now.

Considering the ballooning incarceration rate in the United States that currently means over 2.3 million Americans are behind bars (equal to more than one out of every one hundred American adults), the educational needs of this huge population warrants attention. Incarcerated individuals make up one of the largest demographic populations in the U.S. Furthermore, it’s important to note many of those serving sentences come from underserved backgrounds or have been funneled into prison via the school-to-prison pipeline or as a result of “tough on crime” policies like the aforementioned Crime Bill or the Reagan Administration’s “War on Drugs.” Only six percent of this 2.3 million person prison population currently have access to a correctional education program.

In 2016 President Obama initiated the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program to support postsecondary educational programs by awarding Pell Grants to just under 12,000 incarcerated students. This program is only in its second fiscal year, and the impact will be measured longitudinally so results are not yet available. The hope is that the program will provide data illustrating the benefits of correctional education as well as demonstrate increased participation in such programs when Pell Grants are available. Three separate pieces of legislation have been introduced for the consideration of the 115th Congress that will cause legislative change regarding Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals should any of them pass the current legislative session. Among these are the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act, and the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act.

The most straightforward of these is the REAL Act, which seeks solely to restore Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated individuals. The Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act asks for the same, but also seeks much more comprehensive reform to the Pell Grant program. Some highlights of this Act include increasing grant maximums, reinstating eligibility to students with drug offenses, and allowing DREAMers access to Pell Grants, each of which have the ability to complicate the possibility of the Act passing. The PROSPER Act, or the Higher Education Act Reauthorization Bill, currently has no language specifically addressing incarcerated students but there appears to be tentative support for adding such language to the bill. If the language were added, it would be among an exhaustive list of amendments to the former Higher Education Act.

Regardless of the cost, correctional education has been shown to reduce recidivism rates, or the likelihood for formerly incarcerated individuals to reoffend. According to 2013 Rand Corporation findings, there is a staggering 43% reduction in the likelihood of recidivating among these individuals. The same study also estimated that per $1 invested in Pell Grants, the U.S. stands to yield a $4-5 return on amounts that would have otherwise been spent to house, feed, and provide healthcare to those who had recidivated. Students who participate in correctional education programs are less likely to engage in violence, prison politics, or self-segregate by race. They opt instead to interact with their classmates, reflect on course materials, and build productive friendships.

With these benefits, the complicated nature of American politics, and the current proposed legislation in mind, it will be interesting to see what decisions are made regarding Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students and how those changes impact the landscape of incarceration in the United States.

This post was authored by Sarah Borden, a master student in Higher Education Administration at The University of Texas at San Antonio and a graduate assistant in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies.

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Reader Comments (7)

This is an important topic, yet it remains under the radar. I did not realize that the crime bill had cut out Pell grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals. With Pell grants becoming more politicized as “entitlements” are debated, I can see why prisoner education reform is not seen as a priority. However, the facts about recidivism and cost benefits from prisoner education make a compelling argument for the importance of providing access to higher education for ALL students- even those incarcerated. I am left wondering how else to raise awareness of this issue or how to educate lawmakers that these costs for prisoner education will save them money in the long run. (Though that seems to be a continuous challenge in all discussions about appropriately funding all levels of education). I wonder if there has been research done on the limited remaining prisoner education programs; could the programs that have persisted provide data on the value of these education opportunities? Maybe highlighting those programs are the way to raise awareness about the importance and value of educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals.

April 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Severance

Undoubtedly our justice system and the prison system included require great reform. Too many people are being put into prison for crimes that could be handled differently altogether. Prisons themselves are nasty environments that encourage tribalism and anger rather than any reflective change necessary within the soul. I am all for a rise in education, religious services, counseling, and other means of help. However, these are not requirements but privileges. Prisons are unpleasant institutions, for unpleasant people (i.e. murders, rapists, molesters, and thieves to name a few). People who have committed such crimes have lost their rights, their liberties. They too must pay the price for their actions. Can they too come to some form of repentant change? Absolutely. But it does not negate the crime. It requires a price in loss of liberty. I support the educational grants, but not because they have a right to them.

April 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterKyle Richey

I am a firm believer in a reform to our prison system to help find assistance for those wanting to better themselves. I had not known about grants or funding for those seeking education but can see the benefit in giving these individuals a proper education. Providing education and, as a result, a greater opportunity to become a productive member or society is what these individuals need. By denying them this opportunity we are only hurting ourselves and losing out on the chance to have these individuals assisting our society instead of just being a financial burden. I am interested in seeing more results on the benefits of offering funding and education to this population and hope to see greater efforts to improve their chances at success.

April 28, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos A Velez

The statistics you provide on how much education can reduce recidivism are remarkable. I would be interested to know more about what percentage of the prison population is even in a position to apply for such grants (i.e. how many have a high school diploma or equivalent). In other words, what was the cost of providing this service to begin with? I would venture to guess fairly small, which underlines that the change was not based on financial resources.

I think one of the major barriers to prison reform is that there is little agreement about the degree to which a prison sentence is about punishing someone for a crime and the degree to which it is about reforming someone who has committed a crime. If we only view prison as a mechanism for punishment, then providing educational support will likely be seen as extraneous; however, if we acknowledge the reality that prisoners need to be able to reintegrate into society after their release, then providing support services (like access to higher education) that will help them succeed post-incarceration is essential.

I am here for educating the incarcerated. Although they may have committed a crime, I feel that education brings out the best in people. As individuals learn they become aware of what life has to offer, they are able to gain focus and a sense of direction. The educate are willing to do better and learn more. By proving an education to incarcerated individuals you are providing them with a chance to become a better citizen.

I had the opportunity to mentor incarcerated juvenile delinquents, and every time I stepped foot into the detention center the young men knew they had something to look forward to. I challenged them to think beyond the detention center and into their future. I had them to come up with a plan for when they were out in the "free". I was sure to steer them in the right direction, their goals had to be realistic and they had to provide me with a detailed structure as to how they will meet their goal once they are out in the "free" while maintaining staying out of trouble, and not gravitating to the same troubling group of friends. Most of them were successful once they enter the "free".

I said all that to say this, I believe that it is worth it to provide the incarcerated with an education so that if and when they are able to rejoin society they are more knowledgeable than they were when they entered. Most are willing to do better and remain on a straight and narrow once they are free.

May 3, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTrenshae Gilbert

I am one of those who used to believe there was no reason to allow criminals to gain access to anything extra while incarcerated, especially money for education. However, I was not educated on the topic. Learning more about this topic I understand the need for incarcerated individuals to receive grant money and the importance of the education they will receive. These incarcerated individuals are being released with nothing, come out to nothing, and end up having to return because they have not education or skills. This is sad, especially when the cost to educate them outweighs not educating them.

May 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Sherwood

Coming from the area I teach in I think that incarcerated individuals should be educated. Most of the students parents that I teach are often taken to jail and once they are released they go back because the commit the same crime. Being educated will help them with the skills to land a job that get them away from the dangers of going back to jail. If they have family they can also be role model to their children on being educated. Yes they did something wrong but they learned not to do it again and they have someone believing that they will do better once they are out. Most of the individuals in jail did not have anyone to motivate them to continue their education that is why they often live the life of crime. They are in there serving their time, they should at least learn something that would benefit them once they leave to rejoin society.

May 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterApril Vasquez

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