Providing prisoners with expanded access to higher education is the smart thing to do

Providing prisoners with expanded access to higher education is the smart thing to do
© Getty Images

It’s hard to find bipartisan agreement on almost any issue in Washington these days, but that’s exactly what’s happening with a small, relatively unknown federal program called Second Chance Pell. And it’s happening for a good reason.

The program allows prisoners who are pursuing post-secondary education at a limited number of colleges to have access to Pell Grants, the primary form of federal financial aid for low-income students. The program was created under the Obama administration and has been supported by the Trump administration. More importantly, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosNYC teacher suing DeVos over student loan forgiveness program Trump administration says joint UNC, Duke program portrays Islam too positively Trump awards Medal of Valor, civilian honors to responders in Dayton and El Paso shootings MORE recently announced that her agency will expand the program to more colleges.

In a sign of the importance she attaches to the issue, Secretary DeVos spoke last month in Oklahoma at the Dick Conner Correctional Center, where more than 70 men were awarded postsecondary degrees or certificates through Tulsa Community College’s Second Chance Pell, proposing to make what is now an experiment a permanent program.

ADVERTISEMENT

That’s why I’m eager to see colleges and universities step forward and engage in this important work. When the Department of Education started the program in 2016, more than 200 schools applied, 67 were selected, and 64 are currently participating. Even more schools are interested today. It’s a natural fit for institutions, tying together their missions and the broader goals of higher education.

Increasing access to Pell Grants will allow more colleges to be able to afford to work with correctional facilities. Currently, the majority of institutions in the Second Chance Pell program are community colleges. While these institutions have natural connections in their communities, they often lack the resources necessary to develop and administer these programs. 

As the head of an association that represents college and university presidents, I appreciate the opportunity Secretary DeVos has offered. Not just as a way for more schools to participate, but as a chance to right a wrong.

Twenty-five years ago, President Clinton signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Among many other provisions, that law banned individuals who are incarcerated from receiving Pell Grants.

On the surface, denying prisoners access to federal student aid for college may seem like common sense. The numbers tell a different story, though.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Rand Corporation found that offering education to prisoners reduces the possibility they’ll return to prison by 43 percent, and increased their chances of finding employment by 13 percent. Washington State determined that for every dollar spent on correctional education programs, taxpayers saved over $19 dollars due to lowered incarceration costs from reduced recidivism. The Vera Institute for Justice quantified those numbers even further, finding that correctional education programs provide an economic benefit of $45.3 million annually, and a savings to states of nearly $366 million annually.

Quite simply, correctional education is the rare combination of a social good that has practical returns. That is why there is momentum in Washington to remove the ban entirely, with support from the White House and leaders of both parties in Congress. Work is underway to do just that. But even before the ban is lifted in law, the Second Chance Pell program permits us to gather real-world experience on how best to meet the needs of incarcerated students and taxpayers.

As a result, it’s critical that more schools participate. Currently, only six percent of incarcerated individuals have access to postsecondary education. Approximately 460,000 more individuals would be eligible to participate if the ban is lifted. That represents amazing potential for real positive change, as increasing the number of those studying while incarcerated will multiply the benefits not only to those individuals, but to society at large.

Higher education needs to be at the forefront of that effort

Even as we need more schools to participate, it’s important to provide meaningful oversight of the program. The data is clear that correctional education provides a return on investment. That’s only true if the educational programs offered are of high quality, however. Thankfully, there are simple ways to do this.

Some of these are obvious. Schools that participate should meet the same standards when educating incarcerated individuals that they have to meet when educating other students. Similarly, they should only offer programs that will lead to employment opportunities in the states in which the prisoners reside. Finally, schools should submit clear plans that detail how they will address the unique challenges of providing correctional education, in partnership with the correctional facility, and they should have those plans regularly reviewed to guarantee that students are well-served.

There are other reasonable measures that should be undertaken to safeguard the students and the taxpayer investment, and even as we applaud Secretary DeVos for her work in expanding this program, we hope to work with her agency to continue to improve it.

The expansion of the Second Chance Pell program is one of those success stories that deserves more attention. Working together, colleges and universities can and should partner with their states and the federal government, and work to expand access to quality postsecondary education for incarcerated individuals. 

Ted Mitchell is president of the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.