The Higher Education Act of 1965 created the Pell Grant program, designed to help low-income students afford college; an amendment to that law in 1972 explicitly made inmates eligible to apply for Pell grants, now the federal government’s largest educational assistance program for college students.
But a provision added by Congress to a 1994 crime bill and signed into law by President Clinton cut off Pell grants for post-secondary education for local, state and federal inmates. At that time, two- and four-year colleges were receiving a total of approximately $35 million for courses they were providing to about 23,000 inmates; that was under 1% of the Pell program’s overall funding of over $6 billion that year.
But backers of ending inmates’ eligibility for Pell grants portrayed that as a choice between “kids versus cons.” An upsurge in violent crime, and dissatisfaction with the performance of some schools, especially for-profit ones, helped the crime bill pass with significant bipartisan support.
Despite that the crime law’s flat prohibition against awarded a basic Pell grant to “any individual who is incarcerated in any Federal or State penal institution,” over two decades after the eligibility cut-off, President Obama in July 2015 authorized the Departments of Education and Justice to create what was described as a three-to-five year “pilot program” to resume making some inmates eligible for Pell grants.
Although that action was controversial with some conservatives, including some supporting criminal justice and sentencing reform, the administration justified the initiative end education law provisions allowing rule waivers to test experimental programs. Under the revived program, known as the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program.
On a personal note, I’ve written for years about the benefits education can bring inmates, and there’s a substantial body of evidence backing that up. For example, a 2013 Rand Corporation study found that inmates who took part in educational programs while they were incarcerated after being released had not only better employment prospects, but also substantially lower recidivism. (Part of the Obama administration’s rationale for its “experimental” revival of Pell grants was to document the positive effects of education during incarceration.)
Looking at the issue just from a dollar-and-cents approach, incarceration is many times more expensive than Pell or similar educational assistance programs, so it shouldn’t be hard to show educating inmates actually saves money. The Rand study researchers, for example, estimated each dollar spent on prisoner education would save between $4 and $5 in future costs.
Continuing the eligibility of inmates for Pell grants beyond the end of this year will require action by the administration or Congress, however. Thus far, both Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (aside from a passing mention months ago that Pell grants for inmates sounded to her like a “very good and interesting possibility”) and the White House (except for very general remarks about the value of promoting ex-inmates’ re-entry into society) have been noncommittal on specific plans to keep inmates eligible for Pell grants.
Even though 2018 is not yet halfway over, with the Congressional calendar shortened by mid-term elections, if the powers that be have any real intent of keeping Pell grant eligibility, they have no time to lose in making and announcing their plans.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.