Paying Debts to Society, but Unable to Pay for College
Tuesday, March 20, 2018 at 11:04AM
David H.K. Nguyen

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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