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Prison education program from Lipscomb University

Lipscomb University

The U.S. Department of Education is poised to announce a limited exemption to the federal ban on prisoners receiving Pell Grants to attend college while they are incarcerated.

Correctional education experts and other sources said they expect the department to issue a waiver under the experimental sites program, which allows the feds to lift certain rules that govern aid programs in the spirit of experimentation. If the project is successful, it would add to momentum for the U.S. Congress to consider overturning the ban it passed on the use of Pell for prisoners in 1994.

“The idea is under consideration,” a department spokesperson said.

Sources said the Obama administration backs the experiment, and that it would be unveiled this summer.

A likely scenario would be for state and federal prison education programs from a handful of colleges to become eligible for Pell Grants. Various restrictions might apply, such as for participating students to be eligible only if they are scheduled for release within a specific number of years.

Even a limited experiment will provoke controversy. Spending government money on college programs for convicted criminals is an easy target for conservative pundits and for some lawmakers from both political parties.

For example, last year New York Governor Andrew Cuomo dropped his proposal to use state funds for prison education programs after the plan received immediate and fierce opposition.

Yet advocates for removing the federal ban point to evidence that supporting educational opportunities for prisoners pays off for students, for government coffers and for society on the whole. (Click here to read a broad article about prison education programs.)

“Our association will support the reauthorization of Pell Grants for inmates,” said Steve Steurer, executive director of the Correctional Education Association. “It’s a no-brainer.”

Steurer and many others who work on college programs for incarcerated students cite an influential 2013 study from the RAND Corporation. The research found that inmates who participated in correctional education -- including remedial, vocational and postsecondary programs -- were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years. Participants also were 13 percentage points less likely to commit another crime.

The RAND study found that every dollar states spend on prison education saves about five dollars in incarceration costs. That’s because prisoners who get a college education are more likely to land a job and to successfully reenter society after they are released.

“People go back as workers and parents,” said Steurer.

While the Education Department is certain to get some pushback if it goes forward with the experimental sites program, several experts said the timing is right.

Currently, 40 percent of the 700,000 men and women who are released from prison each year will be incarcerated again in three years. Most states face serious budget challenges, with Medicaid and pension obligations squeezing out other priorities. So there is more urgency to find a way to keep released prisoners from returning for another expensive stint behind bars.

Some Republican state lawmakers support prison education programs, experts said, because they like the clear return on investment.

“It is financially wise,” said John Dowdell, coeditor of The Journal of Correctional Education. “It’s time to get over the emotional bias and do what the data says.”

Lifting the Ban?

The Obama administration in December released new guidance for states and local agencies on how to better educate juvenile offenders. The release included clarification that students in juvenile correctional facilities would be eligible to receive Pell Grants.

The administration estimated that roughly 4,000 of the 60,000 incarcerated juvenile offenders would be eligible for federal aid. That investment makes sense, they said, given that it costs an average of $88,000 per year to lock up a juvenile offender. And inmates of all ages are half as likely to go back to jail if they take college courses.

“High-quality correctional education is thus one of the most effective crime-prevention tools we have,” wrote Arne Duncan, the education secretary, and Eric Holder, then the attorney general, in a letter to state officials. “High-quality correctional education -- including postsecondary correctional education, which can be supported by federal Pell Grants -- has been shown to measurably reduce reincarceration rates. Less crime means not only lower prison costs -- it also means safer communities.”

The December announcement triggered few complaints, the department said. And the positive or at least muted response probably helped encourage the feds to get serious about an experimental sites program for adult prisoners.

Another factor, said several observers, is more attention to the large numbers of black men who are in prison. That issue has been elevated because of the painful national debate over police killings of unarmed black men. Efforts to help prisoners, particularly those who were locked up for nonviolent drug crimes, might be viewed more favorably in the wake of the recent protests in Baltimore, experts said.

The congressional ban passed during the Clinton administration severely crippled correctional education programs, even though federal spending on Pell Grants for prisoners at the time was only $35 million per year.

“Our programs were much, much bigger when there were Pell Grants,” said Dowdell, who directs correctional education programs at Ashland University, a private institution located in Ohio. “Higher education in prisons just about tanked.”

Several states continued their correctional education funding. Ohio, for example, has remained relatively supportive. However, even that state stopped funding degree programs for incarcerated students after Congress passed its ban. These days Ohio’s correctional education programs focus solely on employment-related certificates.

A broad, successful experimental sites program could pave the way for Congress to reverse a bad policy, said Dowdell. Some congressional Democrats support that idea, he said.

Dowdell supports the experimental sites approach. He likes that it would be controlled, focused and would generate research that could inform future policies.

“It should be done in a very grounded, experimental way,” he said.

If Congress did reverse the ban, finding new money for Pell Grants likely would be a challenge. But Steurer said it wouldn’t be too expensive. Only 40 percent of inmates have a high school degree or an equivalency like the GED, he said. So most prisoners would be ineligible. And even if all of those who were eligible receive Pell Grants, according to Steurer’s estimate, the total cost would be $5 billion per year. That’s manageable, he said, particularly considering how much it would save in future incarceration costs.

“My personal experience working in corrections for over 40 years tells me that education often has a transformative effect on inmates, the way they think, what they feel about themselves and how they view themselves as citizens and parents,” Steurer said in a written statement.

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