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Why Pell grants have failed American prisoners

Pell Grants, the federal government’s main subsidy to post-secondary students with financial need, once paid for tens of thousands of incarcerated individuals to take classes. They were crucial to lowering one of the many barriers to higher education that prisoners face. Now, after nearly three decades of baseless exclusion, prisoners are once again eligible for these grants. Still, most applicants will face hopelessly strict eligibility rules that keep college out of reach.

Pell grants to prisoners never exceeded 0.5 percent of total program outlays. Still, they were often under fire during the “tough” response to crime in the 1980s. Research has long associated education with reduced offending, but Congress has been ambivalent.

The 2015 Second Chance Pell (SCP) pilot program, a project of both the Obama and Trump administrations, aimed to demonstrate that prisoners would use federal funds for education to improve their lives after release. Six years in, low uptake has stifled the program’s benefits.  

The SCP pilot made over 50,000 Pell Grants available to incarcerated students. A survey of colleges that participated in the pilot estimated that only 22,000 prisoners had enrolled over the first four years. According to a Government Accountability Office report, poor participation was consistent over time. 

However, low uptake is not a product of low demand. Rather, it is indicative of structural problems with the Pell application process that the SCP pilot failed to correct. 

A recent report predicts that Pell Grants could serve as many as a third of the 1.3 million people in state prisons. Yet the report fails to account for eligibility criteria and application requirements that exclude the overwhelming majority of incarcerated people. Research has shown that the actual portion of the U.S. prison population eligible for Pell may be smaller than four percent. 

People in prison who wish to apply for Pell funds face overlapping roadblocks, as 85 percent are disqualified by more than one condition. For example, male Pell applicants must be registered for the draft. Only 32 percent of prisoners are registered, however, often because  they are incarcerated on their 18th birthday.

Similarly, tens of thousands of currently ineligible prisoners could receive Pell Grants if the federal government streamlined the document verification process. One of the characteristics of imprisonment is the inaccessibility of official documents, which often must be requested via mail from opaque and slow to respond government agencies. Consequently, 75 percent of prisoners who applied through the SCP pilot are automatically flagged for verification and must provide additional proof of identity, tax status, and educational attainment.

Many states impose formidable barriers to eligibility, such as barring people with long sentences to complete or sex crime convictions. There is no evidence to suggest that education would expire over the course of a long prison term or that those convicted of a sex crime will benefit any less from education than someone convicted for burglary or assault.

The obstacles that incarcerated individuals face in their pursuit of higher education are undoubtedly daunting. Still, a few quick policy fixes could open the door to thousands more incarcerated learners. Relaxation of the Selective Service, document verification, length of sentence, and type of crime restrictions would increase the eligible applicant pool from four percent to about a quarter of the national prison population. 

The expansion of Pell to prisoners has the potential to radically change the outlook of incarceration in the U.S., but only if enough learners participate. Imprisonment is often a tremendous waste of time that could be spent providing people with skills and credentials that make them less likely to commit further crimes after release. Most prisons lack the infrastructure necessary to deliver post-secondary education. Without an adequate pool of people who can pay for classes, educational opportunities will remain limited, and because prisoners cannot move to places where opportunities do exist, many otherwise eligible and motivated people will go unserved.

Pell eligibility can improve lives and fundamentally alter how we rehabilitate people who commit crimes. But without changes to eligibility criteria, few will benefit. As long as post-secondary education is an exceptional circumstance rather than a commonplace feature in American prisons, we will not measure its benefits accurately. And if the value of education in prisons is in doubt, programs like Pell will remain vulnerable to the ever-changing winds of U.S. politics.

Richard Hahn is a criminal justice senior fellow at The Niskanen Center.

Tags Pell Grants

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