Congress passed sentencing reform legislation in December that was widely regarded as the first major step in recent years to address mass incarceration. Now many involved in that fight are turning their focus to higher education.
A coalition of groups with a broad range of ideological positions is pushing to make repeal of the federal ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students a top priority as talks heat up over reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the law that oversees federal financial aid.
Those organizations, including civil rights groups, religious colleges and conservative organizations, argue that college access for students behind bars is an issue of equity for postsecondary education and also the logical extension of efforts to end mass incarceration.
“For two years, all anyone has been talking about is 94 percent of people in prison are going to come home someday. This was a natural next step,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “This is just saying, let’s allow people to use their time to improve themselves and to prepare themselves for returning home.”
Federal law has prohibited incarcerated students from receiving Pell Grants -- the primary form of need-based student aid -- for more than a quarter century. That’s limited the growth of college programs for people behind bars, while some sort of postsecondary credential has become ever more important to get a well-paying job.
But many conservatives in recent years, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have expressed interest in supporting prison education. And the Trump administration has named financial aid for incarcerated students as a top priority for a new higher ed law.
Advocates for removing the ban saw one sign of progress this month, when Senator Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, reintroduced legislation to repeal the ban, with bipartisan support from Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican. Supporters are looking to win over lawmakers to support a repeal of the ban and to have Pell Grants for incarcerated students mentioned in the same breath as bail and sentencing reform.
“We’re in a moment where criminal justice reform has a lot of bipartisan support and momentum,” said Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at the Education Trust. “We want to build on that momentum at the federal level.”
Advocates also said the Second Chance Pell experiment, which was launched under the Obama administration and will soon enter its third year, could be an asset in winning more support for prison education. The experiment allowed a limited number of incarcerated students to receive Pell Grants while enrolled at participating colleges. So far, the program has awarded more than $35 million in aid to about 8,800 students, according to the Government Accountability Office.
In a listening session on the experiment this month, DeVos said the nation “benefits when former inmates are able to re-enter their communities and contribute in positive and meaningful ways.”
But significant hurdles remain to move the needle politically, including widespread misconceptions about how the Pell program works and about how lifting the ban would affect current students.
“We have to explain to folks that the Pell Grant is an entitlement program,” said Jones.
That means anyone who qualifies receives the grant, which provided a maximum award of about $6,000 this academic year. There isn’t a limited amount of Pell grants, so expanding eligibility would not prevent other students from receiving grants.
A Vera Institute report released in January found that most people in prison would qualify for postsecondary education but don’t receive the necessary financial support. Less than 10 percent of incarcerated individuals completed any postsecondary program in 2014, the latest year for which data is available.
The report also found that prison education increases the employment and earnings of formerly incarcerated people. And it argued that expanding postsecondary education would save $365 million per year in state spending on incarceration. The Vera report projected that if every eligible person in state prisons received a Pell Grant -- an unlikely possibility -- the total costs of the program would rise by only 10 percent. But the savings on other government spending would be much greater, it said.
Advocates who support repealing the ban have sought to knock down misconceptions in meetings with lawmakers and in events organized on Capitol Hill that target their staffers. Earlier this month, Ed Trust and the Institute for Higher Education Policy organized an event for mostly congressional staff members that was designed to simulate the re-entry challenges faced by formerly incarcerated people.
A debate also is likely to unfold over who qualifies for the grant -- would all incarcerated students be eligible? Or only nonviolent offenders and those without long-term sentences?
The Second Chance Pell experiment directed institutions to prioritize individuals who are set to be released within five years, although it did not bar financial aid for other incarcerated students. And the White House has backed "targeted" financial aid for incarcerated students who are eligible for release. A Democratic House proposal to reauthorize the Higher Education Act last year included a repeal of the ban without restrictions. Groups like Ed Trust and the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities are pushing for a similar “clean repeal” of the Pell ban.
“We think that all people are created with dignity and all people were created for a purpose,” said Shapri LoMaglio, vice president for government relations at the council. “We think that education gives people an opportunity to fulfill their purpose vocationally. That applies whether you’re a prisoner or not.”
Efforts to build support for repealing the Pell ban have brought together education policy advocates and criminal justice reformers who wouldn’t typically cross paths, as well as organizations with decidedly different politics.
“It’s amazing to go to these meetings and you see your archenemies in other areas,” said Arthur Rizer, director of criminal justice and civil liberties at R Street, a free-market think tank. “I’m not going to say we’re holding hands and singing, ‘Kumbaya.’”
In meetings with lawmakers, he argues lifting the Pell ban is an issue of supporting incarcerated individuals’ re-entry after prison. Blocking access to an education undermines the future chances of those individuals, Rizer said.
“This is taking FIRST STEP and making it real,” he said, referring to the new sentencing-reform law.
The Pell ban was installed as part of a 1994 crime bill that was passed at the height of the tough-on-crime era and is now widely viewed as draconian. Critics of mass incarceration say that punitive approach hasn't made communities safer and has exacerbated racial and economic inequality. Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, who served 15 months in federal prison for his role in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, called the inclusion of the ban on Pell Grants "a nasty fit of spite." He and other advocates said the government instead should invest in individuals behind bars.
The FIRST STEP Act was seen as the first serious legislative effort to deliver on that critique of mass incarceration. The bill encountered vocal opposition from conservative lawmakers like Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, and former attorney general Jeff Sessions. But figures like Kim Kardashian lobbied President Trump to support FIRST STEP.
Virginia Foxx, the ranking GOP member on the House education and labor committee, believes no person's potential should be ignored, a spokeswoman said. But Foxx doesn't support a repeal of the ban.
"We believe it's work-force development programs, not Pell, that can do the most good for incarcerated Americans, and that's where we should be looking," said Marty Boughton, a Foxx spokeswoman.
So far, most critics haven’t spoken out publicly against Pell Grants for incarcerated students. Instead, advocates have encountered mostly quiet opposition from some lawmakers who remain skeptical about lifting the ban. Meanwhile, others have indicated interest in continued prison education but have been hesitant to sign on to a bill.
Rizer said many conservatives still see support for education as a state issue, and some critics see the idea of incarcerated students receiving special benefits if the ban was dropped as a powerful argument.
But removing the Pell ban, he said, is “about making the program that already exists available to people who need it the most.”
Arguments for expanding access to Pell Grants have found a receptive audience with the officials who run many state correctional institutions. In a March Capitol Hill event, for example, Heidi Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, said the state will soon have 1,000 incarcerated students participating in the Second Chance Pell experiment.
That will save the state money, Washington said, by reducing the number of reoffenders. But it also has a profound impact on the environment of correctional institutions.
“The greatest impact is students discovering what they’re able to achieve when they’re given the opportunity to pursue an indication,” she said. “We look forward to ultimately lifting the ban so we can grow our numbers even more.”
An even more important key to winning over Republicans in Congress could be support from the White House. In a celebration of the FIRST STEP Act earlier this month, President Trump talked about his administration’s support for re-entry programs and for the Second Chance experiment.
“I think maybe more than anything else, we’re now proving that we are a nation that believes in redemption,” he said.