Twenty years after passing a law that banned prisoners from financing higher education with federal grants while incarcerated, the government is ready to begin investing in the education of inmates.
The Washington Post reports that the government announced plans today that it will initiate an experiment — called the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program — to offer a limited number of prisoners Pell grants to finance their education from a select number of colleges starting as soon as next year.
The move, which is being made under the Obama administration’s authority for limited financial aid experiments, doesn’t immediately change the status of the ban put in place in 1994. At the time, Congress decided it was unfair for prisoners to claim a share of federal financial aid dollars that were in limited supply at the time — $5 billion, compared to the $29 billion available today.
The Second Chance program aims to help prisoners who are eligible for release within five years work toward an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree while incarcerated. The schools partnering with the program have yet to be announced.
“America is a nation of second chances,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “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.”
Duncan maintains that the new experiment will not take money away from the nearly eight million students who are expected to receive Pell grants in 2016, saying that the cost of the program will be very modest.
Although the experiment isn’t a reversal of the 1994 ban, it could eventually lead there. At the time that ban was enacted, the government estimated that more than 25,000 inmates received $35 million in Pell Grants for the first nine months of the 1993-1994 school year.
For two decades, critics of the ban have argued that Congress was shortsighted in taking away funding for prisoners’ schooling. They contend that investing in education for inmates could reduce the likelihood they will commit another crime when released, the Post reports.
Despite the long-running rule, many schools have continued to operate their own inmate education programs. One such program is Goucher College in Maryland, which enrolls 60 to 100 prisoners at a time.
“There’s a long waiting list,” Goucher President Jose Antonio Bowen, tells the Post. “Anything that helps bring more education to the incarcerated is something we would support.”
Feds announce new experiment: Pell grants for prisoners [The Washington Post]