The Washington Post
A postsecondary door reopens
After a quarter-century, Congress restores Pell grants for prisoners.
BEFORE CONGRESS, indiscriminately prosecuting its war on crime in the 1990s, threw more people in prison and provided them with fewer rehabilitative programs, tens of thousands of inmates received federal student aid to take postsecondary education classes in prisons. That was smart policy and a blessing for taxpayers: Besides warding off boredom behind bars, it also provided inmates with better prospects once they were released, thereby lowering chances they would reoffend.
The anti-crime bill of 1994, backed by then-sen. Joe Biden and signed by President Bill Clinton, put an end to that aid by banning prisoners from receiving Pell grants, the main federal financial aid program for undergraduates. Almost instantaneously, nearly 25,000 inmates lost their Pell grants, and scores of colleges closed down classes at state and federal penal institutions nationwide. Nineteen percent of federal prisoners and 14 percent of those in state prisons took college courses before the bill was enacted; a decade after it passed, those numbers had fallen by half.
That epic chapter of national heedlessness officially ended last month when Congress passed, and President Trump signed, the pandemic relief bill, which restores Pell grants for incarcerated felons. It’s about time.
Whatever the price of the program — there is no projection yet — it is likely to be highly cost-effective, and a tiny sliver of the overall $30 billion spent annually on Pell grants. At an educated guess, 100,000 or more of the nation’s 1.5 million prison inmates might avail themselves of the grants, which require a high school diploma or GED as well as the initiative to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
That’s a drop in the bucket compared with the nearly 7 million current annual Pell grant recipients, and a modest expansion of the program. More important, studies have shown that incarcerated felons enrolled in education programs enjoy better employment prospects and higher wages upon release. They are also 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than those who do not take classes, according to a study by the Rand Corporation.
Those stark data, along with the broad bipartisan consensus in recent years opposing mass incarceration, gave rise first to a pilot program, initiated by the Obama administration and expanded by the Trump administration, to allow certain inmates access to Pell grants. Some 16,000 enrolled in the program over the three years ending in 2019, with 130 colleges and universities participating, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. Now, with the policy fully resurrected in law, the number of incarcerated students is expected to swell, along with the courses available to them.
That’s great news, but success will not come automatically. It’s critical that state and federal authorities are vigilant to ensure that new postsecondary programs for inmates are quality classes offered by reputable institutions — preferably in person once the pandemic runs its course. Officials should be wary of fly-by-night and for-profit schools, desperate for students and revenue, that would exploit prisoners for a quick buck while offering dubious value.
In the meantime, kudos to Congress for at last doing the right thing.