Vivian Nixon was a key voice in the Education Department’s decision in 2015 to reinstate Pell Grants for a limited number of incarcerated students. On Monday, the executive director of the College and Community Fellowship exhorted lawmakers to take what criminal justice reformers view as the next step: lifting the 1994 ban on federal student aid in prisons.
“To succeed after a criminal conviction, one must navigate countless hurdles and barriers,” Nixon told a roomful of supporters from higher education and corrections backgrounds. “Education is one of the most effective ways to help people negotiate that process.”
Proponents of college education in prison on Monday marked the successes so far of the Second Chance Pell pilot program, the Obama administration initiative that will soon enter its fourth year, at a convening organized by the Vera Institute. The larger goal for many in the room, though, was full reinstatement of Pell Grants for incarcerated students, a priority that many think has been advanced by the progress of Second Chance Pell. Many supporters see the personal stories of students pursuing college course work through the program as the strongest argument for reinstating federal student aid in prisons.
The initiative, which offers Pell Grants through 64 participating colleges, has proved to have staying power through part of two administrations. And it’s given advocates new ammunition to argue for lifting a quarter-century ban on the grants in prisons. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reaffirmed her support for the program at the Vera event and said it would be up to lawmakers to decide how prison education should be expanded further.
“It’s Congress’s chance to act and do its job to make sure to extend this opportunity in a very sustainable and predictable way to many more people across our country,” DeVos said.
About 1,000 students have graduated with degrees or postsecondary certificates since the Second Chance program began in 2016. Although Republicans criticized the pilot as an overreach by the Obama administration at the time, signs of bipartisan support for prison education have emerged since then.
The Trump administration and Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee, have offered support for including a repeal of the 1994 ban in a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. And earlier this year, legislation to repeal the ban got GOP co-sponsors in the House and Senate for the first time.
Nixon, who herself served three and a half years in prison, said in an interview that she expected difficult conversations around carve-outs for Pell eligibility in prisons -- who gets federal aid and who doesn’t based on types of convictions, length of sentence or other factors.
“That’s why I think they’re moving slowly. Not because there’s a lack of will to move forward,” she said.
Nixon said she disagrees with restrictions on grant eligibility because any person has the ability to change and because the length of prison sentences can always change as a result of exoneration, pardons or compassionate release.
And she said the comments from DeVos -- and her personal visits to two prison education programs -- were encouraging for supporters of expanding aid to incarcerated students.
“Her recommendations were all about broad access, and that was a pleasant surprise,” Nixon said.
Making the Case for Pell Reinstatement
Panelists at the Vera event took stock of the shifting support for restoring aid to incarcerated students.
“We’ve come a lot farther on this issue than we ever anticipated,” said Hayne Yoon, the government affairs director at the Vera Institute. “Partly as a result of this pilot program and as a result, I think, of synergy between the right and the left. It’s really moved the issue forward on Capitol Hill.”
John Wetzel, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said the majority of the incarcerated population in the U.S. will eventually re-enter their communities and education is the best tool to help them succeed -- a message correctional administrators have brought to lawmakers and their staffs on Capitol Hill.
“If they’re getting back out, why aren’t we giving them the tools to be successful?” he said.
Expanding postsecondary education in prisons hasn’t been without serious challenges in the first years of the Second Chance program. Various reports have documented problems obtaining adequate classroom space or keeping a ready supply of textbooks in some prisons. Many prisons also offer few chances to access the internet or even computers, making it more difficult for students to research assignments.
Participants at the convening Monday also acknowledged the significant difference it can make for students when there is buy-in not only from top corrections officials, but prison staff as well. A Vera report released this year noted tensions with a guard at a New Jersey prison that led to a sit-in by students.
Because the Education Department has collected little data on the Second Chance Pell program, there are also serious barriers for researchers looking to study the effectiveness of the pilot. The Government Accountability Office urged the department in a report earlier this year to undertake a rigorous evaluation of the program. That’s yet to happen, although DeVos said in May that a planned expansion of the number of participating colleges would help efforts to evaluate Second Chance Pell.
But some lawmakers continue to offer philosophical objections to expanding Pell Grants for incarcerated students.
Representative Virginia Foxx, the ranking Republican on the House education committee, said in May that states should cover the cost of educating incarcerated students -- that despite restrictions on student aid in her home state, North Carolina. And some higher ed officials offered a heavy dose of realism Monday about the continued opposition to lifting the Pell ban.
“We absolutely are in no position to take political success for granted,” said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges. “There are just a whole lot of people out there at this moment who are not sympathetic to this concept.”