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Pell Grants for Prisoners: Considerations in the New Administration

September 22, 2017 Diana Ali NASPA

Should the criminal justice system focus more on rehabilitation or punishment? This age old debate has resulted in the passage of conflicting federal policy over the last fifty years in which the value of correctional education opportunities have been drawn into question. This post considers the utilization of the Pell Grant Program, today’s most substantial form of federal financial aid in assisting low-income individuals, in offering correctional education assistance to incarcerated individuals over the latter half of the last century, and how the reimplementation of Pell Grant eligibility opportunities for prisoners progresses a national agenda of criminal justice reform. While philosophical debate of punishment or reform rages on, advocates of today’s Pell Grants for prisoners movement continue to make an appealing evidence-based case for the cause. 

Higher education has historically been promoted as an important stepping-stone in the prisoner rehabilitation process. Until 1994, incarcerated individuals were eligible to receive Pell Grants under the Higher Education Act of 1965; the Clinton Administration altered that when it passed the now highly controversial Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act or the “Crime Bill.” At the time, following skyrocketing rates of homicide, the Crime Bill was passed swiftly through Congress with bipartisan support. However, since its passage, the Crime Bill may have contributed to mounting incarceration rates while having little impact on reducing overall crime. Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals came to an end despite it serving a substantial portion of the prison population, estimated at 9% of those in prison in 1982 and 23,000 federal and state prisons in 1993-94; significant evidence that the program reduced recidivism rates; and studies which pointed to a healthy return on investment.

This past month, the American Enterprise Institute issued an initial report ushering in the second year of the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, first launched under the Obama Administration in 2015. The report provides background on the movement leading up to the creation of the program, citing evidence on trends with studies prior to the implementation of the Crime Bill, including 2013 Rand Corporation findings of reduced recidivism rates of up to 43 percent, and an estimated $4-$5 return for every $1 invested. A push for reform by the Obama Administration resulted in the implementation of the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program in 2016, through which 67 schools enrolled 12,000 inmates in over 100 prisons. Around 1 percent of current Pell dollars, $30 million, was set aside for the first year of the program and sites maintained autonomy in determining the details of the enrollment process.

The Second Chance Pell Program will enter into its second year of programming in the fall of 2017 and follow the same protocol to that of year one. However, the future of this initiative, and the overall continued availability of correctional education, remains uncertain under the Trump administration. June’s Executive Order (EO) “Expanding Apprenticeships in America” which promoted apprenticeship opportunities “for persons currently or formerly incarcerated,” was met with some appraisal for addressing a major obstacle for prisoner re-entry, however, the EO failed to consider incarcerated individuals in tandem to those pursuing post-secondary education, and would not act as a replacement for correctional education opportunities should Second Chance Pell be discontinued. In addition, constant mixed-messaging from the new administration creates ambiguity in the future of funding availability for vocational programs at prisons, as Trump administration budget proposals continue to signal drastic cuts to job-training programs nationwide.

Following Trump administration discussions on the value of vocational training, Inside Higher Ed pointed out that while many in the higher education community may point to an overreliance on four year institutions to provide successful workforce development opportunities for their students, higher education has and will continue to operate as the primary avenue for meeting the nation’s workforce needs. Institutions of higher education currently receive the largest share of federal work force development funding, at 34 percent, so better collaboration between the Departments of Labor and Education may begin to address some of the gaps in meeting the career development needs of college students.

One key way of integrating the work of the Departments may lie through the Pell Grant program. The Jumpstart Our Businesses By Supporting Students (JOBS) Act introduced by Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) in January, would allow students, including the 12,000 participants of the Second Chance Pell Program, to use Pell dollars for vocational certification programs. The Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act introduced in both the House and the Senate in May would similarly increase eligibility to those in job-training programs, as well as to a wider low-income population, including undocumented individuals.

While the expansion of job-training opportunities for inmates might excel through the use of Pell funding, evidence continues to point specifically to the value of a post-secondary degree in reducing recidivism rates. In the rollout of the Second Change Program, former Secretary of Education John King stated that recidivism reduction jumps from the 43 percent in the aforementioned Rand Corporation study, to 98 percent upon the completion of a Bachelor’s degree. Similarly, as reported by Diverse Issues in Higher Education, in a panel with the Brookings Institution last month, Shon Hopwood, an associate professor of law at Georgetown University stated that participation in the Post-Prison Education Program in Seattle reduced recidivism rates from 55 to 2 percent.

The impact of the Second Chance Program is longitudinal in nature, and therefore outcome data are not yet available for this most recent pilot program. The Program has not yet been pulled by current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, but the proposed Congressional cuts of up to $3.3 billion from the Pell reserve budget may indicate potential future instability in the Pell program itself and unforeseen challenges ahead. Please check out the October 2016 CLASP report “From Incarceration to Reentry” for more information on gaps and opportunities in the correctional education conversation.