Pell grants for prisoners
Bipartisan support grows for helping inmates pay for a college education
Kate Watkins remembers reading an article about Lipscomb University’s prison education program in 2007 when she was a graduate student there. The program brought classes and traditional students from the Christian school in Nashville, Tenn., into a nearby women’s prison so inmates could participate.
Watkins began praying she could someday get involved. In 2014, while Watkins was working on a doctorate in ministry, the director of the Lipscomb Initiative for Education (LIFE) asked her to teach a class to inmates. Now, in her fourth year as the LIFE program director, Watkins has seen the difference the program has made for both traditional students and prisoners trying to turn their lives around. She said many traditional students change their majors to law, theology, or the medical field after hearing prisoners’ stories. For inmates in the program, the quality Christian education helps open job possibilities after their release, shapes their character, and occupies their time in prison.
“They take the opportunity for education very seriously,” Watkins said. “So many of them have said, ‘I never thought in my life that I would get a college degree, and who would have thought I’d have found it in prison?’”
The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities lists Lipscomb as one of 20 member schools with programs in prisons. Watkins believes more schools would start programs if they could afford it. Over three semesters, students can earn a total of nine credit hours, which cost Lipscomb approximately $8,000. Traditional students pay to participate in classes as normal, but university and donor support covers tuition for inmates and other LIFE program costs.
That could change if the U.S. government decides to restore education funding to prisoners. Bipartisan support for restorative approaches to criminal justice—including ending a ban on Pell Grants for prisoners—has grown in recent years. The last two presidential administrations have enacted prison Pell Grant pilot programs, and multiple bills have proposed reinstating the funds. None has passed yet.
The 1965 Higher Education Act made prisoners eligible to receive federal Pell Grants—government funds for low-income college students. By 1990, 772 college programs, largely funded by the grants, operated in an estimated 1,287 prisons across the country.
The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act disqualified all prisoners from receiving Pell Grants. Three years later, the number of higher education programs in prisons had dropped to about eight nationwide. During floor debate in the U.S. House of Representatives on the crime act, then-Rep. Bart Gordan, D-Tenn., summarized the opposition: “Certainly there is an occasional success story, but when virtually every prisoner in America is eligible for Pell Grants, national priorities and taxpayers lose.”
President Barack Obama’s administration started the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program in 2015. It invited colleges and universities to apply for limited Pell Grants for experimental prison education sites. In the first year, 67 schools worked with more than 100 prisons.
The program continued under President Donald Trump. In April, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos expanded it to 130 schools. But restoring Pell Grants for prisoners beyond the pilot program would take congressional action. Last year, Sens. Brian Shatz, D-Hawaii, Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced the Restoring Education and Learning Act to bring back prisoners’ Pell Grants. It awaits a committee vote. In July, as part of a $1.3 trillion spending package, the House passed a similar bill, which the Senate hasn’t yet taken up.
Advocates for making the funds available to prisoners often point to a 2013 Rand Corporation report showing inmates who participated in education were 43 percent less likely to re-offend after release. Prisons with education programs were often quieter, calmer, and less violent.
Some worry the cost of the program could take Pell Grants away from other low-income students who deserve them. Prison Fellowship noted that, legally, all eligible students who apply for the grants will receive them, so including prisoners won’t exclude others. Additionally, eligibility is based on income, and in the years before the 1994 ban, prisoners took up less than 1 percent of Pell spending.
Disagreements could surface over which prisoners should qualify. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and other Republicans have proposed restoring prison Pell Grants only to inmates eligible for release, not prisoners on death row or serving life sentences.
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