What the Experts Say About Offering Pell Grants to Prisoners

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch (both at center) were among those present at the unveiling of a pilot program in which a small number of prisoners will have access next year to Pell Grants. The event took place at a state prison in Maryland.
August 03, 2015

The Obama administration’s unveiling of a pilot program to make some prisoners eligible for Pell Grants has been long awaited by advocates who have worked to bring higher education into prisons over the past two decades. But many are still waiting for details about what the program will look like and what it will mean for their broader efforts nationwide.

The pilot program was formally announced on Friday here at the Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup by the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, and the attorney general, Loretta Lynch. Mr. Duncan and Ms. Lynch, who were joined by other administration officials and members of Congress, spoke with students enrolled in the Goucher Prison Education Partnership, a program that offers inmates at two prisons in Maryland for-credit courses through Goucher College.

Under the pilot program, a small but still unknown number of colleges will work with prisons to offer eligible inmates Pell Grants, even though a law, passed by Congress in 1994, has barred state and federal inmates from receiving that aid. Priority will be given to prisoners who are likely to be released within five years. Colleges will have until September to apply to be part of the experiment.

The Chronicle asked several education experts who work with inmates for their initial thoughts on the experimental program. Here are four key themes that they mentioned:

It’s a symbolic and strategic move.

Given past research on the benefits of higher education for inmates, the program is likely to result in success stories, said Robert Scott, executive director of Cornell University’s Prison Education Program. If more people are aware of those stories, more might mobilize around the cause, he said.

Advocates will hope that they can point to Pell-eligible inmates who succeed as they re-enter society, thereby making the case for a broader policy shift, Mr. Scott said. "You create a statement," he said, "that the federal government is treating the figure of a prisoner as a human being."

Doran Larson, an English professor at Hamilton College who leads the Attica Writer’s Workshop at the Attica Correctional Facility, in New York, said the pilot was probably a political experiment to "sweeten the pill" of prison education.

"I’m supportive of this initiative, there’s no doubt about that," Mr. Larson said. "I would hope that they would be also simply looking to the expert knowledge and experience of people who have been providing this sort of education."

We still need more details about how the program will work.

Mr. Duncan said the department did not yet have a sense of the scope of the program. But he said that interested colleges would be evaluated on their proposals, including how they would work with prisons and how serious they are about the program.

But all types of institutions are likely to seek to be involved. Private institutions have been at the forefront of the cause since Pell funding was stripped, in 1994, Mr. Larson said.

Colleges will view Pell Grants as an income stream, he added. Public colleges may be particularly interested in the program, as many of them now face cuts in state funding every year. "One thing that always attracts colleges is more income," he said.

In fact, more colleges have tried to get involved in prisoner education in the past decade, said Baz Dreisinger, the academic director at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Prison-to-College Pipeline program. The government’s pilot program could allow for new and different programs to emerge and grow, she said.

While the program at John Jay, a campus of the City University of New York, is focused on men who are about to leave prison, all types of educational efforts are needed, Ms. Dreisinger said. Some prisoners are interested in graduate-level programs, she said, and more programs could mean that more opportunities reach more inmates while they’re still incarcerated.

Better educational offerings could improve prisons themselves.

More education in prisons could have a "pacifying effect" on prison life, Mr. Larson said, making a better environment for both prisoners and employees. "People want to keep clean behavior records in order to participate" in educational programs, he said.

When Pell Grants were offered to prisoners, they were typically extremely well spent, he added, as prisoners are usually sure to be in class, and textbooks are reused by multiple students.

A political fight looms.

Mr. Duncan has already defended the legality of the pilot program, citing a provision in the Higher Education Act that allows the Education Department to study the effectiveness of a student-aid program without approval from Congress.

But Rep. Christopher C. Collins, a New York Republican whose district includes the Attica prison, has already introduced legislation that would bar the department from doing so. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee who is chairman of the Senate education committee, has said the administration does not have the authority to run the pilot program.

Cornell’s Mr. Scott wondered whether the topic could become an issue in the 2016 presidential race. "Americans are really divided on this," he said. But, he said, the program could also spark action from states that could introduce their own tuition-assistance programs before the broader federal debate winds down.

And there could be debate over which prisoners should be eligible for Pell Grants. "They don’t want to invest in people who are going to be staying in prison for another decade or two," Mr. Larson said. "But most people inside the institutions will tell you that long-term prisoners are actually very good students."