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U.S. Department of Education Offers Second Chance Pell Pilot Program

On July 31, 2015, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) announced a new pilot program that will provide federal funding to colleges to provide classes at select prisons. The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program will help prisoners further their education, and thereby “get jobs, support their families and turn their lives around” once they are released.

The program permits colleges and universities to submit proposals to the DOE for the 2016-2017 academic year. Once the proposals are selected and in operation, eligibility will be restricted to prisoners who meet Title IX requirements and have release dates within the next five years. The program, slated for commencement as soon as Fall 2016, does not include prisoners held in civil commitment facilities due to sex offenses.

The pilot program is authorized by the Higher Education Act of 1965, which created the federal financial aid system currently used by the United States. While the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act prohibited state and federal prisoners from receiving federal financial aid – specifically Pell grants – and effectively gutted postsecondary education programs for prisoners, the Higher Education Act still allows the DOE to create “experimental” sites. The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which is expected to run approximately five years, falls within that category.

The research backing the pilot program is clear. According to a 2013 RAND Corporation study, prisoners who participate in educational programming are 43% less likely to recidivate within three years of release than those who do not engage in such programs, and are 13% more likely to obtain employment following release.

“We found that for every taxpayer dollar spent on correctional education, there is a five dollar savings due to released inmates desisting from crime and not returning to prison,” stated Robert Bozick, a sociologist who worked on the RAND report.

Numerous other research studies have reached similar conclusions – there is a direct correlation between prison education programs and a reduction in recidivism rates.

“For the money we currently spend on prison, we could provide universal pre-K for every 3- and 4-year-old in America or double the salary of every high school teacher in the country,” said Arne Duncan, then-Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. “America is a nation of second chances. Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are – it can also be a cost-saver for taxpayers.”

Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, agreed, commenting that prison education reduces recidivism and violence, and “transforms the nature of the whole apparatus to one that, while not minimizing punishment whatsoever, treats people in the criminal justice system with dignity and returns them to the communities from which they came in a way that serves their communities’ interests.”

In addition to the DOE’s pilot program, federal legislation called the Restoring Education and Learning Act was introduced last year. The REAL Act, H.R. 2521, would once again make state and federal prisoners eligible for Pell grants. [See: PLN, Aug. 2015, p.32]. The bill, which has 58 cosponsors, was referred to the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training in November 2015, where it remains pending.

Not everyone wants prisoners to have access to higher education programs, though – particularly tough-on-crime politicians who believe those who break the law should not get a “free” college education at taxpayer expense. One of those naysayers, U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, introduced a bill in July 2015 dubbed the “Kids Before Cons Act” (H.R. 3327), which would prohibit the DOE from providing Pell grants to prisoners, including through the pilot program. That bill also remains pending in committee.

“To be clear, this is never haves-versus-have-nots or whatever,” Duncan explained. “Having an inmate receive Pell grants doesn’t take a nickel from anybody else, and this is really about trying to help individuals get back on their feet.... This never pits one group over another, and it’s not robbing Peter to pay Paul. It’s just trying to have a few more people have access to what could be a life-chance-forming opportunity.”

With respect to cost benefits for taxpayers, he noted, “The cost-benefit of this does not take a math genius to figure out. We lock folks up here, $35-40,000 every single year. A Pell grant is less than $6,000 each year.”

As of October 2015 – the deadline for applications – over 200 colleges and universities had expressed interest in participating in the DOE’s Second Chance Pell Pilot Program.

Sources:,,, Wall Street Journal,,,,

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