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I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Pell Grants for the incarcerated.

The political tide is turning on “Pell Grants for prisoners.”

A bipartisan groundswell is emerging to reverse the 25-year-old ban on allowing incarcerated people to receive support from the key student-aid program. A bill in Congress, the Restoring Education and Learning Act, has gained cosponsors from both parties. Higher-education leaders and justice-reform organizations support an end to the ban, while the U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is also championing the idea.

Even the language around the issue is changing. That curt description, “Pell Grants for prisoners,” which I remember so well from the 1990s, with all its derisive connotations, is rarely used today. The term of choice these days is “second-chance Pell.” That’s also the name of an experiment, begun by the Obama administration, that now involves 64 colleges offering college-level courses in prisons to more than 10,000 inmates. DeVos intends to expand that experiment and wants to make it permanent. That a Trump official would stand behind any Obama-era higher-ed program, much less embrace its name, speaks volumes about the appeal of this issue.

Having followed this topic even before 1994, when Congress banned the use of Pell Grants for people in prison, I’m heartened by the turnaround in attitudes, but a little wary of all the enthusiasm, too.

The heartened part probably isn’t surprising. Studies show that educating incarcerated people works, most notably a 2013 meta-analysis by the RAND Corporation that seems to appear in nearly every recent article on the topic. It reported that inmates who had participated in correctional-education programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivism than those who did not. (Fewer pundits seem to quote RAND’s similar analysis from 2018, which said inmates in such programs were just 28 percent less likely to return to prison.) RAND also found that every $1 spent on educational programs for inmates could reduce future incarceration costs by as much as $5.

More than 1.5 million people in the United States are incarcerated in state and federal prisons, and most of them will eventually get out and return to their communities. I don’t have direct experience with prison education, but logic and basic common sense suggest that it’s a good idea. I also trust the wisdom of people I know who do have that experience, including personal friends and folks I’ve interviewed, such as Wes Moore.

My hesitation comes from seeing how public officials and colleges gamed the system in the past and my reporter’s suspicion that it will happen again. When I began writing about the issue, in the early 1990s, one of my stories described how states were cutting back on their own spending for correctional education and letting federal Pell Grants fill the gap. Another described how a for-profit college had been accused of deliberately inflating its tuition so it could collect the maximum Pell Grant.

A generation later, still fighting the good fight.

When I wrote about those issues 28 years ago, one expert I spoke with was Stephen J. Steurer, then executive director of the Correctional Education Association and statewide coordinator for corrections education in Maryland. Back then, he too noticed the trends, and warned that if states and institutions started “fudging around with the original intent of a Pell Grant,” Congress or the Department of Education would try to eliminate prisoners from the program. As it turned out, Congress did just that three years later, although the rationale was primarily the “tough-on-crime” political ethos that brought the 1994 crime bill into law.

Steurer still works on prison education as a consultant, and when I tracked him down last week to get his read on the situation, he seemed enthusiastic about how the currents seemed to be shifting again. If he shared any of my latent skepticism, I couldn’t sense it. “I’m grateful for what I see,” he told me.

He called the 2013 RAND report a key turning point. In the 1990s, Steurer said, “there was no hard evidence” to show the value of prison education. Other factors now at play: a developing recognition that the 1994 crime bill went too far, and a growing understanding among corrections professionals that they need programs for inmates. They know, he said, that “they can’t run a system based on security alone.” He also credited the Trump administration and especially the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who reportedly has championed prison reform because of the experiences of his father, who served time in prison. (I asked Kushner about that directly in an email message; I got no response.)

As pleased as he is about the apparent change in attitude, Steurer knows what has been lost since the Pell Grant ban for prisoners went into effect. As a system, “federal prisons are doing nothing exemplary right now” in education, and most states did not step up with their own resources when the federal dollars were cut off. “We lost so much momentum,” he told me. “We’re still suffering from it.”

As he contemplates a future in which Pell Grants can again be used to finance education programs for inmates, Steurer said he still worries that some colleges might try to game the system, but he doesn’t necessarily worry more about for-profit colleges than nonprofits. He’s seen nonprofit colleges chase the dollars too. Meanwhile, he added, “some of the best programs I’ve seen were at for-profit prisons.”

As much as I’d like to see Pell Grants restored for inmates, as I contemplate that same future, I find myself wondering about a few things myself.

No. 1 on that list: What are the measures of success? Three years into the Second Chance Pell experiment, it’s still not clear how the Education Department plans to evaluate it, as the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted in a report in March. Today, with a surplus in the Pell Grant program, that issue may not seem so top-of-mind. But I can imagine the issue getting even stickier if that surplus shrinks, or as other demands on the grant increase if, say, Congress adopts the increasingly popular JOBS Act, which would make Pell Grants available to a host of new shorter-term educational programs.

I also wonder whether the states will pick up any of the financial slack. Before inmates can take college courses, they’ll need to complete high school. Steurer told me that the waiting lists for those programs are already really long. And how will those courses get to the inmates? Online education would seem a natural way for at least some of this education, yet Steurer said the state of educational technology for incarcerated people is “way behind.”

“Most inmates,” he said, “barely see a computer.”

I also worry that the education won’t be that useful until more employers decide to change their policies about hiring people with criminal records, but that’s a topic for another day.

Steurer, by the way, is now 75. And while he juggles time with his grandchildren and his work as a re-entry and education advocate for a criminal-justice-reform organization called CURE, he’s also at work on a study for ETS on the state-of-the-art for correctional education.

I wondered what had kept him so engaged with the issue of education for inmates all these years. His answer was short and direct: “I saw people who changed.”

His report for ETS is due out at the end of the year. You can bet I’ll be reading it — and sharing it in a future newsletter.

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