We know that getting an education can reduce a person’s chances of engaging in criminal activity. Yet people in prison remain some of the least-educated individuals in our country. What’s more, most people who find themselves in prison are indigent; so for those who are passionate about furthering their education and eligible to apply to college, financial aid is vital.
Federal Pell grants are one of the main resources that allow low-income students to finance postsecondary education. Unfortunately, since the passage of the 1994 Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act, federal law prohibits incarcerated students from accessing these grants.
Moreover, eligibility criteria for many state scholarships mirrors the requirements of federal eligibility. That means incarcerated individuals who cannot afford higher education often find themselves out of luck.
While the federal ban remains in place, some states are stepping up. Earlier this year, North Carolina lawmakers introduced House Bill 463 and its companion, Senate Bill 561, which would make state-based scholarships available to incarcerated students. While some of North Carolina’s state-funded grants are already available to people behind bars, three of the four largest pools of grant monies are not.
The bills would change the law tying eligibility for state grants to the federal Pell grant eligibility requirements and make clear that “an incarcerated individual who is not eligible for federal assistance on the basis of the incarceration shall not be disqualified from receiving financial assistance” from the state.
Now, Michigan is considering similar legislation. For the last few years, the state has participated in the Second Chance Pell pilot program, which provides some inmates who are eligible for release access to federal Pell grants to pursue postsecondary education and training. Michigan is seeing the benefits resulting from the program, and lawmakers are now negotiating legislative language that would allow incarcerated students to access state scholarships as well.
While these state efforts are laudable, the federal government also has an opportunity to act.
Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawii, Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., have introduced the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, a bill that would restore Pell grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals throughout the country — as well as the eligibility for any state grants whose requirements are tied to federal ones.
Allowing eligible incarcerated students the opportunity to fund their postsecondary education can better prepare those returning to society for finding more stable and higher-paying jobs. In fact, the Department of Labor reports that in 2017, employees with a college degree earned a median of $1,173 on a weekly basis, while those with only a high school diploma made a median of about $712.
With returning individuals already facing the lifetime collateral consequences of a criminal record — including impediments to finding a job — equipping them with the power of an education can help make the playing field more equal.
Reinstating Pell Grants for incarcerated students is money well invested in other ways, too. Research has shown that every dollar spent on postsecondary education programs for prisoners reduces future incarceration costs by $4 to $5 during the first three years after an individual is released.
Additionally, a recent study found that states would save an average of $7.6 million in incarceration costs for each year in which people in prison had access to Pell grants.
Most importantly, education enhances human dignity. Education allows prisoners to visualize a life beyond the four walls of their cell. It keeps students busy in a productive way. It also heightens feelings of self-worth and empowerment, making those in prison feel like they can make real changes in their lives.
It’s no wonder that prisons offering education programs end up having safer facilities for incarcerated people and staff than those without.
Leadership from the federal government on this issue would go a long way toward helping incarcerated individuals, prisons and communities reap the benefits of educating those behind bars. While Michigan’s and North Carolina’s efforts are praiseworthy, and state grants can certainly help individuals in those states, reinstituting federal Pell grant access would affect far more students nationwide.
The administration has already passed the First Step Act; the REAL Act would be a worthy second step.
Jesse Kelley is the Government Affairs and Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties Manager at the R Street Institute. Nila Bala is the Associate Director of Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties at R Street.