It’s fitting that April is both Community College and Second Chance month, a time to celebrate and renew our commitment to helping people in prison reenter society.
Community colleges exist to provide people with a good education regardless of their background or income. As such, providing an education to people in prison is the embodiment of our mission, especially when you consider that the median income of people in prison is just over $19,000 prior to incarceration — a number 41 percent lower than non-incarcerated individuals.
But prison education isn’t just a win for incarcerated people — it’s a win for community colleges like our own. Currently, there are around 1.5 million people in prison — a population size equivalent to 12 percent of the number of people enrolled in community colleges in the United States — but just a fraction of them have access to participate in postsecondary courses.
That’s not to diminish the great work that community colleges are already doing, but to say that community colleges have a financial and moral imperative to help remove barriers to prison education that exist at both state and federal levels in order to fulfill their mission.
Revisiting Pell grants
Both of us are keenly aware of the impacts those barriers can have for people in prison and colleges alike. In 1964, Alvin Community College (Texas) became the first community college in the state to serve people in prison. Jackson College (Michigan) was another early leader as well but was forced to end its program following the passage of the 1994 Crime Bill, which barred people in prison from receiving federal Pell grants. While Jackson was able to return to offering classes in prison, thanks in part to funding made possible by the Vera Institute of Justice, the truth is both of our colleges were negatively impacted by the federal ban on tuition assistance for people in prison as it created a smaller pool of potential students to enroll in our institutions.
Consider that in just the four prison units served by Alvin Community College, there’s a maximum capacity of nearly 5,500 incarcerated individuals with only 330 students, or 6 percent, enrolled in the spring 2018 semester. Were we to dissolve barriers to tuition assistance at the state and federal level completely that number would likely be far higher. How do we know? Because both of our schools were selected to participate in the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative (ESI), which lifted the ban on Pell grants for a select number of people at 69 colleges across the country.
In other words, our colleges earned the right to pilot and determine what enrollment might look like without the ban, and the results were telling. Jackson College alone was approved to enroll 1,305 people in prison education programs with Pell funding, the most of any site participating the ESI. In total, Second Chance Pell made 12,000 students, including 380 at Alvin Community College, eligible for federal tuition assistance.
An economic issue, too
Having access to a larger pool of people eligible for Pell grants not only helps to improve the financial stability of our colleges, but it equips people in prison with the skills and knowledge that are virtually required in today’s economy. For example, studies show that 65 percent of all new jobs require some postsecondary education. However, only 22 percent of people in state prison have had at least some postsecondary education. Despite this, more than 90 percent of people in prison are eventually released, whether they are ready to secure a job or not, and currently the vast majority of this 90 percent will find themselves back in prison just five years after getting out.
When people in prison complete postsecondary courses taught by community colleges, they are more likely to secure jobs upon their release that lead to other education and economic opportunities and improve their and their family’s future. They are also more likely to outperform their peers. We see evidence of this as students in prison are making the Dean’s list and joining Phi Theta Kappa, the international community college honors organization.
Our programs in prison also create safer communities in and out of prison. A study by the RAND Corporation found that prisoners who participate in postsecondary education and training programs are 43 percent less likely to return to prison than people who do not. In Texas, that number is even higher.
What’s more, prisons with postsecondary programs have fewer violent incidents. This is because the programs provide students the knowledge and skills necessary to become contributing members of their communities while still in prison, ultimately helping corrections professionals do their jobs safely.
A cost-effective option
Finally, it simply costs less to educate someone than to incarcerate them. This is where community colleges can play a key role. The United States spends billions of dollars keeping people locked behind bars but continues to see returns that are diminished by barriers to education for people who are in prison.
Consider the alternative: According to a study from the RAND Corporation, every dollar invested in correctional education yields four to five dollars in savings from a reduction in recidivism rates. Texas alone spends roughly $3.2 billion dollars annually on incarceration, which breaks down to about $22,000 per person in prison. In Michigan, it costs nearly $36,000 per person in prison, or around $1.5 billion annually.
Nationwide, the average tuition cost and fees at community colleges cost around $2,200, and in Texas, the number is half of that. Because it costs less to educate someone than to incarcerate them, by expanding access to postsecondary programs for students in prison we will hold individuals accountable while also saving money and improving safety in the long run.
Unfortunately, despite all of this, barriers to postsecondary education in prison remain at both the state and federal level. Again, that’s not just to the detriment of people in prison, families and our communities; it’s to the detriment of community colleges which have a financial incentive to increase enrollment.
Community colleges have an important role to play in not only providing people in prison with an education but removing obstacles that lower enrollment. Second Chance and Community College month is a time to honor that by pushing policymakers to expand access to postsecondary education in prison through community colleges, so we may better live up to our credo.