Skip Navigation

Congress Should Reinstate Pell Grants for Incarcerated Students

Preventing those behind bars from accessing higher education is not only a relic of the “tough-on-crime” ’90s — it’s bad for public safety.

March 21, 2019

Nation­ally, 95 percent of people in prison today will be released at some point and re-enter their communit­ies. How they spend their time behind bars — and how that time does or does not prepare them for that return — is an increas­ingly urgent issue, both from a human­it­arian and public safety perspect­ive. As we argued in Ending Mass Incar­cer­a­tion: A Pres­id­en­tial Agenda, improv­ing access to correc­tional educa­tion must be part of the solu­tion and is some­thing that the Pres­id­ent and lawmakers should take on.  

Unfor­tu­nately, while prison educa­tion has been proven to reduce recidiv­ism — and give people a better life even while they are behind bars — only about 9 percent of the incar­cer­ated popu­la­tion receives a certi­fic­ate from a college or trade school while in prison.  

This isn’t an eligib­il­ity or interest prob­lem. Instead, it’s an access prob­lem. The current federal ban on those in prison receiv­ing Pell Grants means that those who want to take a class must do so either with their own money or private insti­tu­tional funds. The time has come to repeal this sense­less and insens­it­ive policy — and give incar­cer­ated students every­where a chance to pursue higher educa­tion.

Pell Grants, which are the largest federal aid program for post­sec­ond­ary students in the United States, provide nearly $30 billion in grant aid each year to 8 million low-income students. Incar­cer­ated students were able to bene­fit from the program for decades, but that changed when Congress passed the Viol­ent Crime Control and Law Enforce­ment Act (the infam­ous “1994 Crime Bill”), which also amended the Higher Educa­tion Act of 1965, making it so that no currently incar­cer­ated indi­vidual can be awar­ded a Pell Grant.

The ban was premised largely on fear and false claims about pris­on­ers taking federal money away from “law-abid­ing students,”[1] and its effect was swift and profound. Overnight, post­sec­ond­ary educa­tion became prohib­it­ively expens­ive for incar­cer­ated students.

Why should we care? Increas­ing educa­tional oppor­tun­it­ies for those who are currently incar­cer­ated bene­fits not only them, but the public. A study by the RAND Corp found that people in prison who parti­cip­ate in higher educa­tion and train­ing are signi­fic­antly less likely to be incar­cer­ated again. Other stud­ies have reflec­ted similar patterns: a recent report by the Vera Insti­tute of Justice found that rein­stat­ing access to Pell Grants would create a “domino effect” in which formerly incar­cer­ated people, having taken college classes made possible by Pell Grants, would be less likely to re-offend and more likely to look for work post-release.

The federal govern­ment has already taken small, though signi­fic­ant steps toward this end. Since 2015, close to 10,000 students have received student aid under the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, an exper­i­mental program set up by the Obama admin­is­tra­tion designed to circum­vent the Pell Grant ban. However, with more than 2 million Amer­ic­ans behind bars, tempor­ary solu­tions are not enough. Consist­ent with our Pres­id­en­tial Agenda, Congress should remove the ban outright.

In recent years, the move­ment to remove the ban has gained momentum and support on both sides of the aisle, includ­ing that of Secret­ary of Educa­tion Betsy DeVos, who described rein­stat­ing Pell Grants as “a very good and inter­est­ing possib­il­ity.” Congress has taken note, too. The Restor­ing Educa­tion and Learn­ing Act (REAL Act), initially intro­duced in 2015, would rein­state Pell Grant eligib­il­ity for indi­vidu­als incar­cer­ated in federal and state pris­ons. And while it didn’t pass in the last session, the REAL Act is expec­ted to be rein­tro­duced this Congress. Legis­lat­ors are even now search­ing for addi­tional support for the legis­la­tion, hoping for strong bipar­tisan support.

The REAL Act could be a bipar­tisan victory on prison reform that many legis­lat­ors are look­ing for after last year’s FIRST STEP Act. Moreover, given the FIRST STEP Act’s provi­sions for “recidiv­ism reduc­tion part­ner­ships” with higher educa­tion insti­tu­tions, Pell Grant rein­state­ment could be an import­ant part of enabling incar­cer­ated students to take advant­age of educa­tional oppor­tun­it­ies.

To be sure, the REAL Act would­n’t reduce our still-over­sized prison popu­la­tion. But it would nonethe­less be an import­ant step toward ending mass incar­cer­a­tion. By expand­ing access to post­sec­ond­ary educa­tion for incar­cer­ated students, we can start to change how we as a soci­ety think about pris­ons and reentry.

(Image: iStock/Getty)

[1] Ames C. Grawert, Educa­tion for Liber­a­tion: The Polit­ics of Prom­ise and Reform Inside and Beyond Amer­icas Pris­ons, ed. Gerard Robin­son and Eliza­beth English Smith (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Little­field, 2019), 87.