A college education typically is out of reach for people who are in prison, and even formerly incarcerated students often face questions about their past in the admissions process.
Senator Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, wants to remove those restrictions for students who have been involved with the criminal justice system. He is spearheading bills that would restore Pell Grants for incarcerated students and encourage colleges to drop admissions questions about applicants’ criminal histories.
“If we’re really committed to allowing people after they pay their debt to society to become productive members of their communities, we have to allow them to pursue their education,” he said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.
For the last quarter century, federal law has barred incarcerated students from receiving Pell Grants. And many colleges and universities ask about students’ criminal convictions or disciplinary records -- policies that critics have said can perpetuate discrimination against students from minority groups, and which are being targeted for removal by a national “ban the box” movement.
Schatz made a foray into the college affordability debate this year with legislation that would make higher education debt-free, a more ambitious plan than even the free college proposal offered by Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent. He said the criminal justice legislation is a related push.
“The overall goal is to increase access to higher education,” he said. “And that’s got to include people who are currently and formerly incarcerated.”
Public policy has made it difficult or impossible, Schatz said, for those students to earn a postsecondary degree either behind bars or after being released -- a relic of the tough-on-crime era of the 1990s that produced numerous laws restricting government benefits to individuals with criminal convictions.
In February, Schatz introduced the REAL Act to restore Pell eligibility for students who are behind bars. And he followed that up last month with the Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act. Both bills count among their Democratic co-sponsors potential 2020 presidential contenders like Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Bernie Sanders. (House lawmakers have introduced corresponding legislation for both bills.)
Noticeably absent from the bills' co-sponsors are any Republican lawmakers. But Schatz sees signs of bipartisan momentum behind policies to make college more accessible for students who are caught up in the criminal justice system.
The U.S. Department of Education says it’s committed to continuing the Second Chance Pell experiment, which launched in 2016 and allows students at a limited number of correctional institutions to receive the grants. Major conservative donors like the Koch family also have thrown their support behind efforts to reform the broader criminal justice system -- a rare policy goal shared by some right-wing activists and progressive organizers.
Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at the Education Trust, said the new federal proposals follow the efforts of activists who have been working for years to tackle the consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration.
“We talk about this as something that is a natural evolution of the momentum we’ve seen to address mass incarceration and the challenges it’s created for society as a whole,” she said.
Higher education is a natural part of that organizing because postsecondary credentials increasingly have become required for decent-paying jobs.
“That’s why you see so many states adopting attainment goals,” Jones said. “That’s why you see us talking nationally about the need to address degree completion.”
Going Beyond the Box
Schatz is making the case to colleagues in Congress that higher education programs for incarcerated students benefit society and taxpayers by lowering the chances an individual ends up back behind bars.
"One of the best ways to reduce recidivism is to allow people to get educated," he said. "It’s as simple as that."
The national recidivism rate is 43.3 percent within three years of release. But Schatz’s office cites a study from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which found that the recidivism rate falls to 13.7 percent for formerly incarcerated students who earned an associate’s degree, 5.6 percent for those who earned a four-year degree and less than 1 percent for those who complete a master’s degree.
The benefits of a college education have helped the REAL Act get endorsements from groups like correctional officers' unions. While that bill would simply overturn the 1994 ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students, Schatz’s ban-the-box proposal would give discretion to colleges to determine how they ask about criminal histories, if at all.
For example, it would recommend that they re-examine those policies and assess whether they are necessary for admission decisions. And it calls on the Education Department to issue guidance to colleges on how they can alter their admissions practices.
Syrita Steib-Martin, the founder and executive director of Operation Restoration, said the group had hoped the legislation would direct institutions to no longer ask questions about students' criminal backgrounds.
“It’s not relevant,” she said. “We don’t ask people their sexual orientation, what trauma they’ve been through. We don’t ask those questions ahead of time.”
And data indicate that information is not a good predictor of future crime on campus, she said.
Operation Restoration worked with lawmakers in Louisiana and Maryland to pass state-level ban-the-box legislation. While she said the Schatz bill should go further, Steib-Martin said federal legislation could encourage even more states to pass similar laws.
Jones said her group understands the urge to allow some discretion on the question -- she said some campus presidents have said they want to offer targeted servicers to formerly incarcerated students but sometimes don’t know who they are.
“It’s complicated,” she said. “We have to be paying attention to outcomes intended and unintended.”
She said the group’s biggest goal is to reduce the chance that students are discriminated against based on criminal histories.
Even before introducing the beyond-the-box legislation, Schatz was pushing higher ed to take on the issue. In February he sent a letter signed by 17 other Democratic senators to higher ed associations that asked them to ban the box.
“Passing a bill takes a long time. Even really good bipartisan ideas can take a couple of years at a minimum,” Schatz said. “I try to use whatever influence my office has to advance this cause.”
That pressure has shown some results. The Association of American Colleges and Universities wrote to its 1,400 member colleges in May urging them to drop questions about criminal justice histories from their applications for admission. And the Common App said in August it would drop a question about criminal histories, although individual colleges who use the app may still ask themselves, and a question about disciplinary records remains.
Schatz is under no illusion that his debt-free college plan will garner Republican support -- he talks about that proposal as an attempt to move the Democratic Party on college affordability as much as anything else.
But to the extent possible, he wants to keep the push for college opportunity for students with criminal histories from becoming a partisan fight. That approach recognizes the role both Republicans and Democrats played in enacting “tough on crime” policies and the real chances he sees for winning broader support for removing those barriers.
“Whether you’re the Koch brothers or the ACLU, you realize the architecture of our criminal justice system -- which includes how we treat people who are incarcerated and formerly incarcerated and includes our attitude toward their educational attainment -- is preposterous, and inhumane, and terribly expensive,” Schatz said.