Schools that accept the invitation will work with federal and state penitentiaries to enroll inmates who qualify for Pell, a form of federal aid that covers tuition, books and fees for college students with financial need. Prisoners must be eligible for release within five years of enrolling in coursework.
“I’ve had the pleasure of visiting several Second Chance Pell institutions and have seen firsthand the transformative impact this experiment has on the lives of individuals who are incarcerated,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement Friday. “By expanding this experiment, we are providing a meaningful opportunity for more students to set themselves up for future success in the workforce.”
The Education Department did not respond to requests for a cost estimate for the expansion of the experimental program. In the first two years of the pilot program, the department awarded about $36.2 million in Pell grants to nearly 12,000 inmates. The funding amounted to a sliver of the overall $30 billion Pell program and had no bearing on awards to eligible Pell recipients who are not incarcerated.
“The expansion of Second Chance Pell is a testament to the fact that broader access to college in prison is a strategy that works — to improve safety, strengthen communities and expand opportunity in our country,” Nick Turner, president of the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, said in a statement.
A recent study by the institute found that more than 4,000 certificates, associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees have been awarded to inmates participating in the Pell initiative over the past three years.
To help inmates, the Education Department is using its authority to run limited experiments in the deployment of federal student aid, although the prohibition of student aid to prisoners remains in place.
Congress banned incarcerated people from accessing Pell grants in 1994, arguing that it was unfair for them to receive a cut of already limited financial aid dollars. But Pell grants served as the primary source of funding for college programs in prisons. And without grant dollars, many facilities scaled back their educational offerings and few inmates could afford to pursue higher education.
Critics of the prohibition said it was a rash decision because educating people behind bars reduces the chances of them committing more crimes upon release.
A study by the Rand Corp. found that inmates who participated in educational programs in jail were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than those who did not. Researchers also estimated that for every dollar poured into correctional education programs, four to five dollars are saved on three-year re-incarceration costs.
A majority of the schools invited to participate in the latest round of the Pell initiative are public community colleges and four-year universities, including Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Most will offer classroom-based instruction at corrections facilities. Others will offer online education or a hybrid of classroom and online instruction.