Smiles crept across the faces of a dozen inmates at Michigan’s Macomb Correctional Facility last week as Heather Gay, education manager for the state prison system, told them that for the first time in over two decades, the federal government might pay their college tuition while they are incarcerated, reports Stateline. The group has been living and studying together for two years as part of the Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project, an experiment conducted in Michigan, North Carolina and New Jersey and run by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice. The goal is to demonstrate that offering a free college education to prisoners approaching release can reduce recidivism.
Gay’s news that a pilot program will reinstate prisoners’ access to Pell Grants — federal educational loans used by low-income students — means they can continue to work toward degrees while in prison. The federal grants, which President Obama reinstated on a limited basis for prisoners, are intended to help inmates avoid becoming among the 40 percent of ex-offenders who return to state prisons within three years of release. Even inmates who participate in high school or vocational education, let alone college, are 43 percent less likely to reoffend after they are released from prison, said a 2014 RAND Corporation analysis. Proponents of Pathways hope that their program, which replicates on-campus programs in the prisons, will have even better results. “These guys are not coming back,” Gay said. “They’re going to get jobs. They’re going to be pillars in the community.”