Washington Watch: Prisoner education, Pell grants and what you can do

The ground is shifting for the better around the notion of providing Pell grants to incarcerated individuals, who were cut off by Congress in 1994.

While support for this concept has never disappeared entirely, the political obstacles to such a change have been daunting. There has been an understandable, though regrettable, impression that individuals who break the law are simply undeserving of public support. In fact, a House floor amendment offered more than 20 years ago to restore Pell Grant eligibility during debate over the high-profile crime bill that eliminated it was rejected by more than a margin of 2 to 1. (The American Association of Community Colleges supported this effort.)

However, general attitudes towards crime and those convicted of them have evolved, in part because of the dramatic nationwide drop in crime, and also because of a growing awareness of the costs of incarceration and its social ramifications.

A widely cited RAND study funded by the Department of Justice found that incarcerated individuals who participated in correctional education were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than prisoners who did not participate in any correctional education programs. RAND also estimated that for every dollar invested in correctional education programs, $4 to $5 are saved on three-year re-incarceration costs.

Positive developments

Some of the more encouraging developments lending support to providing Pell grants for incarcerated individuals include:

The Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Grant program, launched by the Obama administration, is providing Pell Grant eligibility at selected institutions, most of them community colleges. The colleges are partnering with more than 100 federal and state penal institutions to enroll roughly 12,000 incarcerated students. These institutions may provide Pell grants to qualified students who may be released within five years of enrolling.

Prominent Pell Grant legislation introduced in both the House and Senate (though supported so far only by Democrats) would reinstate the grants for prisoners. Although this legislation will not likely be enacted at this time, it  signals that key Democratic policymakers prioritize Pell funding for prisoners.

Expanding access to college for incarcerated people

Perhaps most notably, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, recently stated that he believes that providing Pell grants to prisoners is “in the right circumstances is a good idea.” The significance of Alexander’s position cannot be overstated, though there’s no proposal yet. (The committee is working on draft legislation.)

Numerous community colleges are already committed to providing education to incarcerated individuals, and continue to do so in spite of the challenges. However, securing Pell Grant funding for prisoners would dramatically jump-start these efforts.

AACC recommends that colleges leaders, in conversations with their members of Congress about the Higher Education Act reauthorization, emphasize their support for this concept, if it would help institutions meet their mission.

Also, AACC has drafted a model op-ed that you might consider having placed in a local publication. This might be useful in other contexts as well. The New York Times recently published such a piece.

For more information, contact David Baime.

About the Author

David Baime
David Baime is senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.
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