White House pilot program lets prisoners apply for Pell Grants

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The Department of Education allowing prisoners the chance to apply for Pell Grants.

With Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Friday that the Department of Education and the Department of Justice are starting a pilot program that will give a limited number of eligible incarcerated students the opportunity to receive federal funding to obtain a bachelor’s or professional degree. 

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“We know from research that incarcerated individuals who participate in correctional education — including remedial, vocational and postsecondary programs — are more likely to stay out of prison; more likely to seek, gain and maintain employment; and substantially more likely to remain crime-free,” Lynch said at Goucher College’s Prison Education Partnership at the Maryland Correctional Institute.

With more than 600,000 individuals leaving state and federal institutions every year, Lynch said lifting the ban on Pell Grants for a limited number of prisoners is an important step in ensuring people who have served their time are able to fully and productively engage in society.

“For incarcerated individuals, education can provide an avenue to redemption and a chance to earn their way back into mainstream society,” she said. “It can allow individuals to see themselves as more than their worst decision and encourage them to value themselves for what they can achieve. And the results can deliver significant benefits for communities and taxpayers already burdened by the high costs associated with incarceration and crime.”

Lynch said DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance will provide technical assistance through the Vera Institute of Justice to correctional facilities that partner with institutions of higher learning to provide postsecondary education.

Though it may be a worthwhile idea, Senate Education Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said the Obama administration does not have the authority to lift this ban without the approval of Congress.

The Higher Education Act, he said, prohibits prisoners from receiving Pell Grants.

“The Obama Administration should focus on the existing prisoner job training and re-entry programs through the Departments of Justice and Labor for which Congress provided nearly $300 million last year,” Alexander said in a statement. “Congress can address changes to Pell grants as part of the Senate education committee’s work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act this fall."

In 1992, amendments to the Higher Education Act banned Pell grants for prisoners serving a life sentence or sentenced to death. Congress completely banned prisoners from being eligible for Pell grants in 1994 through the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

The Senate education committee has held seven hearings in working to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which the chairman has said the committee intends to do this fall.

This story was updated at 1:27 p.m. to include Sen. Lamar Alexander's statement, and corrected at 4:48 to reflect that the ban was lifted by the Department of Education.

- Updated at 4:36 p.m. on Saturday.