Washington Watch: Expanding Pell to prisoners looks promising

Allowing state and federal inmates to once again apply for Pell grants — which appears to have support on both sides of the aisle — could happen as Congress is poised to revisit the nation’s main higher education law.

The chair of the Senate education committee this week cited previously proposed legislation to reinstate Pell eligibility to incarcerated individuals as he outlined his priorities to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA).

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has long supported the expansion of Pell eligibility as evidence by its consistently top ranking as a community college legislative priority. Renewed congressional interest in the topic in the last Congress prompted action by AACC and its members. AACC developed a model op-ed letter for its members to use in support of reinstating Pell eligibility to prisoners.

Some community colleges with a history of educating prisoners on a small scale with limited state funds were able to expand their programs with the benefit of Pell grants through the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Initiative.

How we got here

For 22 years, between 1972 when the federal Pell Grant program was enacted, and 1994, low-income students, even those incarcerated in state and federal prisons, could access Pell grants to pay for their college education. In 1994, at a time of rising crime rates in the U.S., the passage of the Violent Control and Law Enforcement Act amended the HEA to ban prisoners from receiving Pell grants.

Even before then, the 1992 amendments to HEA curtailed prisoners’ Pell eligibility. The law limited both the categories of prisoners who could receive Pell and the categories of expenses for which Pell could be used. No longer could persons sentenced to life in prison without parole and those serving capital punishment sentences be eligible for Pell. And, Pell could only be used to pay for tuition, fees, books and supplies.

In the 1998 HEA amendments, another change was made to Pell eligibility criteria. Pell eligibility was suspended to all current recipients who were convicted of a drug offense, for one or two years depending on whether the offense was possession or the sale of a controlled substance. Moreover, Pell grant recipients who were convicted of a third possession or second drug sales offense would lose eligibility indefinitely.

Ten years later, HEA was amended to ban another category of offender. The No Financial Aid for Sex Offenders Act was passed in 2008, which prohibited persons who were subject to involuntary civil commitment ensuing incarceration for a forcible or non-forcible sexual offense from receiving a Pell grant.

Paving the road to HEA reauthorization

In 2015, it was the executive branch’s turn to re-examine the status of prisoner Pell eligibility. It was in the form of the Second Chance Pell program, which was part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Experimental Sites Initiative.

Convinced by the evidence of the effectiveness of attaining higher education in reducing recidivism, the Obama administration introduced Second Chance Pell. Under the experiment, the prohibition against Pell eligibility for incarcerated students was waived. So, the 67 postsecondary institutions, including many community colleges, selected for the program are educating a total of 12,000 state and federal prisoners. The experiment is still ongoing.

The eligibility waiver only applies to students’ incarceration status and not to all the other criteria. Not waived are: demonstrating financial need, being a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen, maintaining satisfactory academic progress, completing the FAFSA, and having a high school diploma or GED.

In the 115th Congress simultaneous bicameral bills were introduced to lift the ban on Pell ineligibility for state and federal prisoners. Lifting the ban was also included in H.R. 6543, the Aim Higher Act, introduced by Democrats in the then House Committee on Education and the Workforce (now the Committee on Education and Labor) as an answer to the previously introduced Republican PROSPER Act.

The current chair of the committee in the 116th Congress, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) has stated he intends the Aim Higher Act to serve as a starting point for HEA reauthorization on the House side.

It is not just community colleges that are enthusiastic about lifting the ban on Pell for prisoners. Many others, including legislators and postsecondary and penal institutions alike, have joined in efforts to make this a part of HEA reauthorization.

About the Author

Jolanta Juszkiewicz
is director of policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.