Bill would restore Pell eligibility for inmates

Mount Wachusett Community College President James Vander Hooven addresses inmates who last month graduated the college’s plastics technology program and OSHA courses. (Photo: MWCC)

A bipartisan, bicameral bill aims to restore Pell Grant eligibility to qualifying federal and state inmates, effective for the 2019-2020 academic year.

The Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act was introduced Tuesday by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois). In the House, companion legislation is being led by Reps. Danny Davis (D-Illinois), Jim Banks (R-Indiana), Barbara Lee (D-California) and French Hill (R-Arkansas).

“When we give people in prison an opportunity to earn an education, our communities are safer, taxpayers save money, and we can end the cycle of recidivism,” Schatz said in a press release. “The REAL Act would restore a program we know already works and give people a real chance to rebuild their lives.”

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) backs the bill along with nearly 70 national and state organizations.

“We have long supported utilizing Pell grants for incarcerated students,” said AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus. “Education is a pathway to productive citizenship that benefits the individual and the public good.”

Myriad reasons

In 1994, Congress dropped Pell eligibility for incarcerated individuals, causing a significant decrease in the number of education programs in prisons. Over the past several years — and especially more recently as Congress looks to reauthorize the Higher Education Act — lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have indicated that they would support reinstating prisoners’ Pell eligibility.

Restoring eligibility would reduce recidivism and incarceration costs by increasing access to higher education, according to the bill’s supporters. About 65 percent of the 1.5 million people in prison are Pell-eligible but cannot access federal tuition assistance because of the ban, according to recent findings by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequity.

In an effort to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals and related costs, federal lawmakers have tried to rework criminal justice laws. In December, President Trump signed a bipartisan reform bill that, among other things, allows eligible prisoners to earn and count vocational training and education toward credits for early release.

Looking at the pilot

n 2016, the U.S. Education Department (ED) selected 64 schools, including many community colleges, across 26 states to participate in its Second Chance Pell pilot program. Over the pilot’s first two years, participating schools awarded about $35.6 million in Pell grants to about 8,800 incarcerated students, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). The agency noted in a report released this month that ED collects data from participating schools but hasn’t determined how to evaluate the pilot — which could help decide the future of Pell grants for students in prison.

One of the college’s participating in the pilot is Mount Wachusett Community College in Massachusetts. Its program has grown from awarding 405 credits over its first year to 957 in the second year, according to GAO. It is expected to award almost 1,200 credits in its third year.

In May 2018, the college awarded certificates in small business management to its first cohort of 22 students. Last month, another cohort received certificates in plastics technology and for a federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration course.

Related articles: ‘A second chance for people in prison‘ and ‘First class in Second Chance Pell program

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.