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Federal Educational Aid Restored for State and Federal Prisoners

“The decision comes after a long push for prison reforms that included calls for a greater emphasis on rehabilitation, reducing prison populations and making prison sentences less harsh,” writes Andrea Cantora in an article for The Conversation on PBS News Hour.

The move expands a pilot program begun in 2015, when then-President Barack Obama cracked open the door for a handful of prisoners to get Pell grants through a limited number of colleges. Called the Second Chance Pell, it funneled tuition money to about 12,000 prisoners through 67 colleges and universities, a number that was expanded to 134 in April 2020 under the administration of President Donald Trump. It was such a success that supporters pushed for it to be expanded and to become permanent.

Cantora, who directs one of the pilot prison college programs at the University of Baltimore, says that it has helped released prisoners secure better jobs. But it also carries extra benefits for those outside the prison because it can “improve public safety and save taxpayers money.” She cites Rand Corp. research showing that participation in prison education programs reduces recidivism rates by 43 percent, so that “for every dollar spent on prison education, taxpayers save $5 in reincarceration costs.”

“Children of an incarcerated person who attended college are also more likely to attend college themselves,” Cantora added.

The programs paid for with the expanded Pell Grants must meet three requirements:

• They must provide credentials needed for jobs that are in high demand and that are not closed to those with criminal records.

• They must offer credits easily transferrable to a college or university, so that a prisoner doesn’t hit a higher-ed “dead-end” if he is released before finishing.

• They must include reentry services to help prisoner-students navigate housing, employment and any needed treatment upon release.

The ban that was lifted had been imposed as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA), signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton in 1994. The idea that prisoners shouldn’t take federal funds away from law-abiding college students trying to get financial help was part of a push by lawmakers to get “tough on crime.”

One of the U.S. senators who supported that law was current President Joseph Biden. But during the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden called his push to kill Pell Grants for prisoners a “big mistake.” Lots of people say he’s right about that. Even prison administrators support Pell Grants for prisoners: A prisoner who has something meaningful to work toward is less likely to get in trouble, they say.

The financial burden on the government by opening Pell Grants to all prisoners is slight. When offered to prisoners before 1994, they represented just 1 percent of all Pell Grant funds paid out.

Support for restoring Pell Grants for prisoners came from members of Congress who were Republicans as well as Democrats and Independents. The ban that was lifted was “a bipartisan mistake,” said John King Jr., who oversaw the Second Chance Pell as secretary of education under Obama. Even conservative groups joined in support of reinstating Pell Grants for prisoners, leading The New York Times to call it a “watershed moment for the criminal justice overhaul movement.”

Another group greatly affected by the tough-on-crime era has been drug offenders, who were also excluded from all sorts of government benefits, including Pell Grants. Those who have convictions for drugs had been banned from Pell Grants since 1998. That ban is now lifted for them, as well.

“For too long, students who are incarcerated ... and students who have drug-related offenses have been blocked from receiving federal aid,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a Senate Education Committee member. “Every single person in this country should be able to access and afford a quality higher education.”

Congress also agreed to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Retiring Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander pushed this move.

“After nearly seven years of work Congress and the President will simplify federal student aid for 10 million families who fill out these unnecessarily complicated forms every year,” he said. “Reducing the FAFSA form from 108 questions to 36 will remove the biggest barrier to helping more low-income students pursue higher education.”

 Vera Institute of Justice President and Director Nicholas Turner said that giving prisoners access to higher education is “a critical step toward a more equitable society, especially for black and brown people who have historically been sentenced to prison at higher rates and trapped in cycles of incarceration.” 


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